The Barnes & Noble Review
When last we met Stuart, Oliver, and Gillian in Julian Barnes's 1991 Talking It Over, Stuart had met and fallen companionably in love with Gillian, who loved him in return. Alas, on the very day of their nuptials, Oliver, Stuart's superurbane best friend, declared the depths of his not-so-companionable, deeply passionate love for Gillian as well. Gillian, who at first denied her feelings, soon found herself likewise head-over-heels for Oliver, so she left Stuart, and she and Oliver moved abroad.
Now, ten years later, Barnes returns to the scene of the crime in Love, etc. Ten years older, and ostensibly ten years wiser, this desperately entangled threesome resume their tale.
The narrative structure of Love, etc., following that of Talking It Over, allows the reader direct access to the inner thoughts of the characters; each, in turn, speaks directly to the reader, as to an old friend, attempting to explain their version of the inexplicable ways of the heart. Stuart, Oliver, and Gillian are joined in this enterprise by a host of secondary characters -- Gillian's mom, Stuart's second ex-wife, Oliver's former landlady, etc. -- each of whom serves to reflect a piece of the story that the others either aren't privy to or just aren't willing to share.
The story they tell is this: Stuart, devastated by Gillian's betrayal ten years ago, moves to the United States where, in the way of Americans, he prospers, working at a number of professions and ultimately finding himself in the organic food distribution business. Sensing a demand back home, he returns to England and builds a small chain of organic food stores. For their part, Oliver and Gillian set up housekeeping in France, have a daughter, undergo a series of marital crises, and have another daughter, all before returning to England, where Gillian thrives as a picture restorer while Oliver tinkers with various projects.
Now Stuart reenters their lives, determined to help them escape the somewhat reduced circumstances in which he's found them. He hires Oliver, rents the couple the house that he and Gillian so briefly occupied, and is generally helpful -- throwing the threesome into another potential crisis.
The questions that linger for the three of them, the questions that Barnes so beautifully captures in this spare novel, are whether life can accurately be described as "love, etc." -- love in the center, with all of life's other stuff relegated to the et cetera -- or whether love is merely one among many of life's experiences. And can love survive those experiences? Are there people who are destined to love only one person, while others can love many, whether serially or simultaneously? And is there any way to know the truth of our emotions, or are we doomed to hide that truth from ourselves?
The characters that Barnes crafts, using their voices and the voices of others, are vivid and passionate, characters whose lives will resonate with the reader long after the novel has been put down.
Kathleen Fitzpatrick is assistant professor of English and Media Studies at Pomona College in Claremont, California.
Read an Excerpt
i remember you
We’ve met before. Stuart. Stuart Hughes.
Yes, I am sure. Positive. About ten years ago.
It’s all right—it happens. You don’t have to pretend. But the point is, I remember you. I remember you. I’d hardly forget, would I? A bit over ten years, now I come to think of it.
Well, I’ve changed. Sure. This is all grey for a start. Can’t even call it pepper-and-salt any more, can I?
Oh, and by the way, you’ve changed too. You probably think you’re pretty much the same as you were back then. Believe me, you aren’t.
Oliver What’s that companionable warble from the neighbouring wankpit, that snuffle and stamp from the padded loose-box? Could it be my dear, my old—old as in the sense of former—friend Stuart?
‘I remember you.’ How very Stuart. He is so old-, so former-fashioned that he likes naff songs which actually predate him. I mean, it’s one thing to be hung up on cheap music synchronous with the primal engorgement of your own libidinous organs, be it Randy Newman or Luigi Nono. But to be hung up on the sun-lounger singalongeries of a previous generation—that’s so very, so touchingly Stuart, don’t you find?
Lose that puzzled expression. Frank Ifield. ‘I Remember You.’ Or rather, I remember yoo-oo, / You’re the one that made my dreams come troo-oo. Yes? 1962. The Australian yodeller in the sheepskin car-coat? Indeed. Indeedy-doo-oo. And what a sociological paradox he must have represented. No disrespect to our bronzed and Bondi’d cousins, of course. In the
world’s fawning obeisance before every cultural sub-grouping, let it not be said that I have anything against an Australian yodeller per se. You might be one yourself. If I prod you, do ye not yodel? In which case, I would give you honest eye-contact and an undiscriminatory handshake. I would welcome you into the brotherhood of man. Along with the Swiss
And if—by some happy whim—you actually are a Swiss cricketer, an off-spinner from the Bernese Oberland, then let me just say, simply: 1962 was the very year of the Beatles’ first revolution at forty-five turns per minute, and Stuart sings Frank Ifield. I rest my case.
I’m Oliver, by the way. Yes, I know you know. I could tell you remembered me.
Gillian Gillian. You may or may not remember me. Is there some problem?
What you have to understand is that Stuart wants you to like him, needs you to like him, whereas Oliver has a certain difficulty imagining that you won’t. That’s a sceptical look you’re giving me. But the truth is, over the years I’ve watched people take against Oliver and fall under his spell almost at the same time. Of course, there’ve been exceptions. Still, be warned.
And me? Well, I’d prefer you to like me rather than the reverse, but that’s normal, isn’t it? Depending on who you are, of course.
Stuart I wasn’t actually referring to the song at all.
Gillian Look, I actually haven’t the time. Sophie’s got music today. But I’ve always thought of Stuart and Oliver as opposite poles of something . . . of growing up, perhaps. Stuart believed that growing up was about fitting in, about pleasing people, becoming a member of society. Oliver didn’t have that problem, he always had more self-confidence. What’s that word for plants which move in relation to the sun? Helio something. That’s what Stuart was like. Whereas Oliver—
Oliver —was le roi soleil, right? The nicest spousal compliment I’ve had in some time. I’ve been called some things in this sublunary smidgeon which goes by the name of life, but King Sol is a new one. Phoebus. Phoe-Phi-Pho-Phumbus—
Gillian —tropic. Heliotropic, that’s the word.
Oliver Have you noticed this change in Gillian? The way she puts people into categories? It’s probably her French blood. She’s half French—you remember that? ‘Half French on her mother’s side’: that ought to mean quarter French, logically, don’t you think? Yet what, as all the great moralists and philosophers have noted, has logic got to do with life?
Now, had Stuart been half French, in 1962 he would have been whistling Johnny Hallyday’s Gallic version of ‘Let’s Twist Again.’ That’s a thought, isn’t it? A pungent pensée. And here’s another: Hallyday was half Belgian. On his father’s side.
Stuart In 1962 I was four years old. Just for the record.
Gillian Actually, I don’t think I do put people into categories. It’s just that if there are two people in the world I understand, they’re Stuart and Oliver. After all, I have been married to both of them.
Stuart Logic. Did someone use the word? I’ll give you logic. You go away, and people think you’ve stayed the same. That’s the worst piece of logic I’ve come across in years.
Oliver Misprise me not about les Belges, by the way. When some jaunty little dinner-table patriot ups and demands ‘Name me six famous Belgians, I’m the one with his hand in the air. Undeterred by the words ‘Apart from Simenon.
It may not be to do with her being French at all. It could be middle-age. A process that happens to some, if not necessarily all of us. With Gill the train is coming into the station roughly on time, steam activating its beloved whistle and the boiler a tad hot and bothered. But ask yourself when Stuart became middle-aged and the only area for debate is whether it was before or after his testicles descended. Have you seen that photo of him in his pram wearing a little three-piece suit and pinstripe nappies?
Whereas Oliver? Oliver long ago decided—no, knew instinctively—that middle-age was infra dig, déclassé and generally below the salt as a condition. Oliver is planning to compress middle-age into a single afternoon of lying down with a migraine. He believes in youth, and he believes in wisdom, and plans to pass from wise youth to young wisdom with the help of a palmful of paracetamol and an eye mask from some exotic airline.
Stuart Someone once pointed out that you can recognise a complete egomaniac by the way they refer to themselves in the third person. Even royalty doesn’t use the royal plural any more. But there are sportsmen and rock stars who talk about themselves like that, as if it was normal. Have you noticed? Bobby So-and-So’s accused of cheating, to win a penalty or something, and he replies, ‘No, that’s not the sort of thing Bobby So-and-So would do.’ As if there’s some separate figure out there, under the same name, taking the flak, or shouldering the responsibility.
Which is hardly the case with Oliver. You couldn’t exactly call him famous, could you? Yet he refers to himself as ‘Oliver,’ as if he was an Olympic gold medallist. Or a schizophrenic, I suppose.
Oliver What do you think of North-South debt restructuring? The future prospects of the euro? The smile on the face of the tiger economies? Have metal traders exorcised the ghost of the meltdown scare? I’m sure Stuart has robust and portly opinions on all such matters. He will be not so much grave as positively gravid. I’ll bet you six famous Belgians he doesn’t know the difference between the two words. He’s the sort of person who expects the word gravid to be followed by lax, silly old fishface that he is. A billboard for probity, and all that. But a little, shall we say, lacking in irony?
Gillian Look, stop it, you two. Just stop it. This isn’t working.
What sort of impression do you think you’re giving?
Oliver What did I tell you? The train is coming into the station, puff puff, huff huff . . .
Gillian If we’re getting into this again, we have to play by the rules. No talking amongst ourselves. Anyway, who’s going to take Sophie to music?
Oliver: Gillian, in case you’re wondering, is an honorary representative of The Men Who Guess.
Stuart Are you interested in pork? Real pork, with real taste? Where do you stand on GM?
Oliver Six, apart from Simenon? Easy-peasy. Magritte, César Franck, Maeterlinck, Jacques Brel, Delvaux and Hergé, creator of Tintin. Plus fifty percent of Johnny Hallyday, I add as a pourboire.
Gillian Stop it! You’re as bad as one another. No-one knows what you’re talking about. Look, I just think we ought to explain things.
Stuart As bad as one another. That’s open to question, I think. In the present circumstances.
All right, I’d like to explain something. Frank Ifield actually wasn’t an Australian. He may have lived there, but he was born in England. Coventry, if you must know. Also, while we’re on the subject, ‘I Remember You’ was in point of fact a Johnny Mercer song written twenty years previously. Why do culture snobs always sneer about things they’re completely ignorant of?
Oliver Explain things? Can’t we leave that until we reach the Dies Irae, until some hydra-cocked Pandaemonian prods us with his dipstick and a bat-headed lizard unwinds our guts on a windlass? Explain things? You really think we ought? This isn’t daytime TV, let alone the Roman Senate. Oh, very well, then. I’ll go first.
Stuart I don’t see why he should. That’s absolutely typical Oliver. Besides, everyone in marketing knows it’s always the first story that sticks in the mind.
Oliver Baggies I first. Baggies baggies baggies.
Gillian Oliver, you’re forty-two. You can’t say baggies.
Oliver Then don’t smile at me like that. Baggies. Baggy baggy baggy and another baggy. Go on, give us a laugh. You know you want to. Please. Pretty please.
Stuart If this is the alternative, I’d rather be middle-aged. Officially or unofficially.
Oliver Ah, marketing! Always my Achilles heel. Very well, Stuart can be our lead-off man if he wishes, pattering round the first bend bearing the baton of truth. Don’t drop it, Stu-baby! And don’t run out of your lane. You wouldn’t want to get the lot of us disqualified. Not this early.
I don’t care if he goes first. I merely have one request, made on grounds not of egomania, self-interest or marketing, but of decorum, art and a general horror of the banal. Please don’t call this next bit ‘The Story So Far.’ Please don’t. Please. Pretty please?
From the Hardcover edition.