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Unions, undertaken and ended

Dedications tend to be regarded as rather perfunctory appendages to books. But Julian Barnes' dedication of Pulse, his latest collection of short fiction, "To Pat" is anything but.


By Julian Barnes

Alfred A. Knopf. 227 pp. $25

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Reviewed by Frank Wilson

Dedications tend to be regarded as rather perfunctory appendages to books. But Julian Barnes' dedication of


, his latest collection of short fiction, "To Pat" is anything but.

"Pat" would be his late wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh, who died of a brain tumor in 2008.

She is surely the presence behind what are probably the two most poignant of these tales, "Marriage Lines" and "Complicity."

In the first, an unnamed man, recently widowed, visits a remote island where he and his late wife had vacationed since before they were married. Calum and Flora, the husband and wife proprietors of the B&B where they always stayed, are reticent, as usual. The man visits all the places on the island that he and his wife had been especially fond of. Then, as he is ready to take off for home, Calum hands the man a half-dozen postcards of the island. "You will be needing the memory," he tells him. To say more would spoil the story for anyone who hasn't read it, but those six words trigger in the man a realization that he had just learned the first of many lessons from grief.

"Complicity" recounts how a man - again, unnamed - first encounters a woman, also unnamed, whom one presumes he marries. The subtlety of it is perhaps best conveyed by juxtaposing two passages. In the first, the man ponders the sense of touch:

Our fingers must work together; our senses too. They act for themselves, but also as pre-senses for the others. We feel a fruit for ripeness; we press our fingers into a joint of meat to test for doneness. Our senses work together for the greater good: they are complicit, as I like to say.

Then comes the final sentence, a marvel of charged simplicity: "And then I touched her."

Most of the stories are not as deeply personal as these. Four stories, collectively entitled "At Phil & Joanna's" (each has its own subtitle) make up a suite of snapshots of a certain social set. The characters - Dick and David and Sue and Larry, as well as the title characters - are never really individuated. Indeed, that is the point. They are like the instruments in a chamber ensemble - different, but all playing the same piece, which may work in music, but has an odd effect in life, making them all seem like nothing so much as the figures in Yeats' poem "The Scholars." They "All think what other people think / All know the man their neighbor knows." As one of them says, "It's other people's newspapers that are untrustworthy. Ours are reliable."

This is fairly gentle, good-natured social satire, but no less devastating for that.

But Barnes is perhaps at his sharpest in the historical tales, "The Limner," about a deaf-mute itinerant portrait painter, and "Harmony," a fascinating story of an 18th-century keyboard prodigy who suddenly becomes blind. She is eventually treated by a forward-thinking physician who has been experimenting with magnetism. The problem is that, as her sight comes to be restored, her playing suffers grievously - and music has been her island of refuge throughout her life.

The variety on display in this little volume is quite impressive, not simply among the stories, but within them. The title story, for example, in a mere 31 pages manages to really explore marriage, both successful and not, relations between parents and children, what people get (or don't) out of running, the vicissitudes of illness, grief, and good deal more.

The again-unnamed narrator ostensibly is telling of the breakup of his marriage to Janice (the only character who is named). But this leads him to recall how they got together in the first place and to ponder his parents' own quite happy marriage. (His father has developed anosmia - loss of his sense of smell. At first, he doesn't do anything about it, but he finally decides to see a doctor. When the narrator asks him why, his father says, "Well, if you want to know, son, it was when I realized I couldn't smell your mum.")

No great questions are resolved, but most interesting ones are raised, among them:

What do we look for in a partner? Someone like us, someone different? Someone like us, but different, different but like us? Oh, I know you can't generalise, but even so. The point is: if we're looking for someone who matches us, we only ever think of their good matching bits. What about their bad matching bits? Do you think we're sometimes driven towards people with the same faults we have?

Among British writers of Barnes' generation, Martin Amis seems to get most of the attention. But Barnes is the more humane and subtle writer, reminding us of how much true mystery lies in the details of our quotidian existence.