Julian Barnes: The Only Story

I tend to mix up some of the middle-aged white male Anglo-Saxon writers. Philip Roth with Saul Bellow, Updike with DeLillo, Martin Amis with Will Self, David Foster Wallace with Brett Easton Ellis. I have read some of their books, mostly in my youth, but I would not make great efforts now to seek them out (Saul Bellow is perhaps the one I remember most fondly out of the lot). One writer I do not confuse with any of the above is Julian Barnes. I haven’t loved all of his books, but he is more often a hit than a miss for me, even though he too can go on a bit about midlife crisis and middle class problems. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that – quite a few readers are in that category, including me, so can relate to all that! – it’s just bad when those are the only kind of books to get published or to win prizes, when they become (forgive the pun) The Only Story. But hopefully all that is changing now!

I admired it but was ever so slightly disappointed by Barnes’ previous novel, the reimagining of three key moments in Shostakovich’s life, but here he goes back to familiar territory, an older man musing on the loves and choices of his youth. 19 year old Paul falls in love with an older married woman – they settle down to live happily ever after, but things don’t work out like that. That’s the story in a nutshell, but it doesn’t do justice to that beatiful sense of yearning, of missed opportunities, of gaining wisdom but losing passion.

Barnes has such insight into human beings, into those stories we tell ourselves, the justifications we use, but is bitingly honest about what lies underneath. At times, it can feel like an extended meditation about regrets and growing older, but it’s full of quotable passages and tangential rants (which nevertheless suit young Paul well).

What did I dislike and distrust about adulthood? Well, to put it briefly: the sense of entitlement, the sense of superiority, the assumption of knowing better if not best, the vast banality of adult opinions, the way women took out compacts and powdered their noses, the way men sat in armchairs with their legs apart and their privates heavily outlined against their trousers, the way they talked about gardens and gardening…… their docile obedience to social norms, their snarky disapproval of anything satirical or questioning, their assumption that their children’s success would be measured by how well they imitated their parents, the suffocaitng noise they made when agreeing with one another…

It seemed to me, back then… that love had nothing to do with practicality; indeed, was its polar opposite. And the fact that it showed contempt for such banal considerations was part of its glory. Love was by its very nature disruptive, cataclysmic; and it if was not, then it was not love.

I didn’t realize that there was panic inside her. How could I have guessed? I thought it was just inside me. Now, I realize, rather late in the day, that it is in everyone. It’s a condition of our mortality. We have codes of manners to allay and minimise it, jokes and routines, and so many forms of diversion and distraction. But there is panic and pandemonium waiting to break out inside all of us…

… by that time he had made the most terrifying discovery of his life… the realization that love, even the most ardent and the most sincere, can, given the correct assault, curdle into a mixture of pity and anger. His love had gone, had been drive out, month by month, year by year. But what shocked him was that the emotions which replaced it were just as violent as the love which had previously stood in his heart.

Video Book Reviews: Norway, Switzerland, Scotland and Sudan

Another quick review of Gunnar Staalesen’s Wolves in the Dark set in Norway, Mary Anna Barbey’s Swiss Trafic set in Switzerland, and Leila Aboulela’s The Translator set in Aberdeen and Sudan. Common themes: human trafficking, dark underside of apparently very civilised societies and an outsider’s gaze at mainstream culture in a particular country.

The Nostalgia of La La Land

It seems that everyone and their dog has been to see La La Land this past weekend and I was no exception. Oh, yes, I succumb to herd instinct just as well as anyone, although the Golden Globe wins very nearly put me off (I perversely don’t like films that make a clean sweep of things). But I wanted to make up my own mind and I rather like musicals: West Side Story, An American in Paris and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg are among my favourite films ever.

So here’s my verdict (spoilers ahead, so don’t read now if you are planning on seeing it): sweet and very nostalgic, a piece of escapism for hard times, but a bit too self-congratulatory for my taste.  And by that, I don’t mean the endless film references, which I quite enjoyed.

Scene from Lala Land, from Indiewire.
Scene from Lala Land, from Indiewire.

First of all, the good bits. The music was very enjoyable, even though I would describe the singing of the male and female leads as brave rather than impressive. Even the white mansplaining of jazz did not disturb me as much as it did other viewers, because I am all about promoting the love of jazz in whatever form. Admittedly, I would agree with the character played by John Legend, who says the best way to keep jazz alive is not to enshrine it in a museum, but to keep on experimenting with it and updating it. The love story had both a floaty-happy feel to it, but was not overly sentimental, there was a hint of realism (and of the screwball comedies of the 1930s).

However, what irritated me was the supposed highlight of the film, when Mia auditions for the role of her life, to be filmed in Paris. She talks/sings about following your dream, being creative and different, trying your best – and this is Hollywood at its most cloying self-delusional state. This is Hollywood as it would like to believe it is: pushing the boundaries, open to new things. They think they want the eccentrics and misfits and true originals, when in fact most of the time they are focused on the box office results and keep remaking old successes (Beauty and the Beast, Ghostbusters) or sequel after sequel of tried and tested favourites, like X-Men 234 or Fast and Furious 32 or whatever number they’ve reached.

Some random film poster of the type we see so many of lately...
Some random film poster of the type we see so many of lately…

Also, if the message of the film was that you can’t have it all: the outstanding career, fame, success and the soulmate of your dreams, it nevertheless reiterated the idea of ‘follow your passion’, ‘don’t give up’, ‘you can excel at some thing’. But what about those of us who have only average talents, who end up with middling lives, a so-so relationship, a family they sometimes love to pieces but occasionally resent, a career that doesn’t live up to expectations but pays most of the bills, perhaps express some of their talent as hobbies at weekends? About 85% of people (rough estimate) end up like that (and that’s the best case scenario, for others will struggle to make ends meet or develop any talents at all). Well, I suppose life would become unbearable if we didn’t believe ourselves capable of moving outside that 85%? And if we are already resigned to it, then we probably head off to see La La Land and other cosy nostalgic fare with occasional flashes of inspiration. A mug of tea which reminds us of the ballerina or astronaut or Nobel Prize Winner we knew we were going to become.

Nostalgia, of course, does well in times of uncertainty and anxiety about world events. Comfort reading and comfort viewing will thrive in the era of melancholy that ‘nothing is as good as it used to be’, combined with the ‘Weltschmerz’ of directionless panic, the sensation of trying to build on quicksand and having doors slammed in your face. So I don’t blame La La Land for playing the nostalgia card.

But perhaps it’s worth remembering that nostalgia was a term coined in the late 17th century by Swiss medical student Johannes Hofer, to refer to the seeming depression displayed by Swiss mercenaries fighting far away from home. It was more than homesickness, and returning home did not always cure them – sometimes it even killed them. As any expat returning ‘home’ knows: home has moved on. Nostalgia is not the longing for a specific place, but for a different time, an idealised time which most likely never existed, when things were simpler, choices more clear-cut.

Nostalgia, from soberistas.wordpress.com
Nostalgia, from soberistas.wordpress.com

The alternative dream of Sebastian and Mia in La La Land remains beautiful and precious because it was never given a chance. In reality, it may well have descended into incompatible aspirations, rancour and petty arguments. I had my own Sebastian in high school, the only person who ever held me to account over my writing ambitions and who believed I had the talent. I used to wonder how much we might have achieved together, but the truth is…

Life and the relentless day-to-day of it makes mincemeat of us all. Uncertainty and mess is all that we’ve got. The desire for rest and order and beauty is our only weapon against it. Call it nostalgia, if you will.