So, you are so worried that the KGB will come calling one night that you can't sleep. And because you can't sleep, neither can your wife. So you pack a small suitcase with a change of underwear, pyjamas and some cigarettes. Then you stand on the landing, by the lift, waiting... And thinking.
An involving account of what it might have been like for an artist to live under Soviet rule. Was Shostakovich a coward as he thought? Or just a survivor?
Whatever; this is an involving book. Highly recommended.
Once upon a time, when he was only moderately famous, Julian Barnes wrote a column for The Guardian called The Pedant In The Kitchen. The idea was that a “Late Onset Cook” would slavishly adhere to recipes and run aghast at the idea of improvisation in the kitchen. This book bring together those columns into a single (very) slim volume padded with pictures.
The concept appealed to me – I am an enthusiastic cook and would happily spend a day following recipes of some considerable complication. I do so to the letter; I see cooking as a co-production between myself as the technician and the writer as the conceptualiser. I think there’s a dose of art on both parts, but I know I will never be able to generate my own culinary ideas.
It was therefore reassuring to find Julian Barnes to be a soulmate. He has an obvious care and passion to put out the best food he possibly can. He too will adopts one or two recipes in a book whilst leaving many untested for no obvious reason. And he shares my frustration at imprecise wording or processes that are logistically impossible (such as the instruction to cook pork chops and halved endives face down in the same pan at the same time). It was even more heartening to find it all written with a delightful, self-deprecating humour. Julian Barnes’s recipe books are very much of his generation – Sophie Grigson and Elizabeth David rather than the names that fill my shelves – and he spends rather longer talking about soufflés than he might. What even is a soufflé? .
However, the columns run out of steam. After the initial rantings against specific recipes and specific writers, we depart into name dropping where Barnes discusses recipes with the various celebrity chefs, even eats at their homes. Then, in a futile attempt to breathe life into the series, Barnes falls back on cookery as discussed in literature. The series ends with a sort of whimper as Barnes tells us he’d rather be in his kitchen, trying out something new. By this point, so too are his readers.
The Pedant In The Kitchen is worth reading, is funny and is very human. The home cook will see himself or herself in at least some of the descriptions. The work will not take long to read, may not leave a deep impression, but will offer reassurance that what we try in the kitchen is OK. It’s OK to muff things up. It’s OK to buy stuff in. The only way to fail would be to stop trying.
Like Anthony Webster, the narrator of The Sense Of An Ending, I "just don't get it".
This short novel starts well enough, if unremarkably, with an account of friendships in the last days of school and early days of university. There is a sense of loss when childhood friendships drift apart as new, adult lives begin. The tone is fairly melancholy, as is Julian Barnes's wont and [whisper it quietly] can be quite dull, as is also his wont. But no matter, Anthony is supposed to be boring so it's simply being narrated in character.
But it is the second half of the novel which doesn't work - at least for this reader. The ghosts of those earlier days come back to haunt Anthony and offer loose ends that he cannot resist pulling at. This leads to a growing sense of unease at where it is all leading. The trouble is, the final reveal doesn't make sense. The earlier actions just don't lead to the conclusion and seem pretty inexplicable.
For my money, pages 144-150 unravel all the promising good work of earlier pages. If the novel had been left at that point, the reader could have drawn his or her own conclusions about what had really happened; on how reliable the narrator was. There was an alternative ending which would have been much more cataclysmic; which might have justified the accusation that Anthony "just didn't get it"; which might have explained events rather better. But the last six pages seem to offer a certainty that the novel could well have lived without.
Most of all, though, there's a sense that Julian Barnes has been here before. The Lemon Table, his lamentable 2004 collection, featured a series of stories about aging, death, loss and regret. It was quite stifling with its relentless misery. The Sense Of An Ending feels like the one that got away - the story that belongs in that collection but was just too long to squeeze in. Moreover, melancholy, loss and regret have been done this year with rather more élan by Graham Swift in Wish You Were Here.
So, ironic as it sounds, this short, 150 page novel feels a bit too long and a bit too contrived.
I know bgo prefers people to post reviews rather than link to blogs but am not sure what policy is regards articles elsewhere that are copyrighted so that it's not possible to copy and paste the review here. I will post a link to my review in The Independent on Sunday of Julian Barnes's new collection of short stories, Pulse, and if it's against bgo rules someone can let me know and I'll remove it.
This is part memoir, but mostly a philosophical discussion on death. The author discusses his personal feelings towards death as he passes 60. His own parents deaths are examined and those of writers he admires. Discussions on God, the after life, evolution and Dawkins. He treats the subject with humour, suggesting that despite authors trying to live on after death, all writers will have their last reader as trends change and time passes, and if you are his last reader, why haven't you recommended him to others, You Bastard!
I was quite taken with some of the theories put forward from other theorists eg. the planet has been around for 4.5 billion years and we are the current peak of evolution, but the Sun has another 5 billion years left, so it is very vain to think we will still remain the pinnacle til then - we may be like amoeba to what comes later or it might revert to beetles grazing over long buried layers of human remains...
Personally I don't fear death; I know there is nothing afterwards. You just have to enjoy the time you are given.
Eternal life - the thought of it is enough to drive you to kill yourself.