Pulse [NOOK Book]


After the best-selling Arthur & George and Nothing to Be Frightened Of, Julian Barnes returns with fourteen stories about longing and loss, friendship and love, whose mysterious natures he examines with his trademark wit and observant eye.

From an imperial capital in the eighteenth century to Garibaldi’s adventures in the nineteenth, from the vineyards of Italy to the English seaside in our time, he finds the “stages, transitions, ...
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After the best-selling Arthur & George and Nothing to Be Frightened Of, Julian Barnes returns with fourteen stories about longing and loss, friendship and love, whose mysterious natures he examines with his trademark wit and observant eye.

From an imperial capital in the eighteenth century to Garibaldi’s adventures in the nineteenth, from the vineyards of Italy to the English seaside in our time, he finds the “stages, transitions, arguments” that define us. A newly divorced real estate agent can’t resist invading his reticent girlfriend’s privacy, but the information he finds reveals only his callously shallow curiosity. A couple come together through an illicit cigarette and a song shared over the din of a Chinese restaurant. A widower revisiting the Scottish island he’d treasured with his wife learns how difficult it is to purge oneself of grief. And throughout, friends gather regularly at dinner parties and perfect the art of cerebral, sometimes bawdy banter about the world passing before them.

Whether domestic or extraordinary, each story pulses with the resonance, spark, and poignant humor for which Barnes is justly heralded.

From the Hardcover edition.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Vibrant. . . . Full of life and voice. . . . As Barnes fans know, love itself is a lifeline for this playful, erudite writer.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“A collection that shows a contemporary master working at the height of his ability. . . . Pulse sneaks up on you, and by the end, you cannot help but be moved.” —The Oregonian

“[Barnes is a] confident literary decathlete, proficient at old-fashioned storytelling, dialogue-driven portraiture, postmodern collage, political allegory and farce, [and the] ability to create narratives with both surface brio and finely calibrated philosophical subtexts.” —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“Outrageously witty and suave. . . . Wry, urbane.” —The Washington Post

“Barnes is among the most adventurous writers—in style, versatility and narrative structure—of his Amis-McEwan-Hitchens generation.” —The New York Times Book Review
“A moving and truth-telling work of fiction.” —The Boston Globe
“Of our leading novelists, Julian Barnes has one of the richest historical imaginations. . . . His stories tend to be quietly observational, rather traditional in manner, and his characters are never tragic. They are inhabitants of a gray-scale world, plugging on through life chastened by the experiences Barnes recounts, but not devastated by them. That may be why we identify with them so easily.” —The Los Angeles Times
“Full of the sidelong wit and intelligence that make the writer one of our most consistently deft short-form stylists. . . . [A] quietly remarkable, elegant book.” —The Telegraph (London)
“A book that is almost entirely masterly. . . . These stories are acutely observational. They neither satirize the speakers, nor celebrate them. They make art out of the quotidian details of modern conversation—and they are very funny.” —The Denver Post
“A collection of stories that engages the reader’s intellect and heart, the best of fiction’s traditional concerns.” —Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“In Pulse, Julian Barnes is as perceptive and intelligent as in any other of his dazzling novels and nonfiction, and, it must be said, fully as serious. . . . The reader appreciates Barnes’ unflinching realism and his determination to boil life down to its essence, however disconcerting that process may be.” —Providence Journal
“Sharply elegant, piercing investigations of relationships.” —Vogue
“Barnes is a master at establishing the intimacies of mortality in this kind of relationship, forever testing the limits to which our faith in human connection might stretch.” —The Observer (London)

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307595997
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/3/2011
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 379,059
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

Julian Barnes is the author of two previous story collections, Cross Channel and The Lemon Table, and fourteen other books. He lives in London.

From the Hardcover edition.


Julian Barnes once told London's Observer that he writes fiction "to tell beautiful, exact, and well-constructed lies which enclose hard and shimmering truths." Indeed, this is what Barnes does, sometimes spiking his lies with fact -- most notably in Flaubert's Parrot, the novel that became his breakthrough book. The story of a retired doctor obsessed with the French author, it combines a literary detective story with a character study of its detective, including facts about Flaubert along the way.

Before Flaubert's Parrot propelled him into the company of Ian McEwan and Martin Amis in British authordom, Barnes had been moderately successful with the novels Metroland (which later became the 1997 movie starring Emily Watson and Christian Bale) and Before She Met Me. He was also known to Brits as a newspaper TV critic. Parrot and Barnes's subsequent "Letters from London" in The New Yorker helped expand the author's Stateside following.

"A lot of novelists set up a kind of franchise, and turn out a familiar product," friend and fellow author Jay McInerney told the Guardian in 2000. "But what I like about Jules's work is that he's like an entrepreneur who starts up a new company every time out." Among other ambitious themes, Barnes has explored the collapse of communism (The Porcupine) the Disneyfication of culture (England, England), the simple dynamics of relationships (Talking It Over and its sequel, Love, Etc.), and the connections between art, religion, and death (The History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters).

Barnes has also produced collections of essays, a translation of Alphonse Daudet's In the Land of Pain, and a family memoir (Nothing to Be Frightened Of) that also serves as a meditation on mortality.

Good To Know

In 2000, a cybersquatting professor acquired the Internet rights to julianbarnes.com and several other authors' domain names; Barnes later won his name back, and the domain is now an informational site run by a fan with Barnes's permission. Barnes had protested the professor's actions, accusing him of usurpation; but his opponent might have responded by quoting from Barnes's own (albeit satirical) England, England: "Indeed, wasn't there something old-fashioned about the whole concept of ownership, or rather its acquisition by formal contract, in which title is received in exchange for consideration given?.... It would have been unfair to call Sir Jack Pitman a barbarian, though some did; but there stirred within him a longing to revisit pre-classical, pre-bureaucratic methods of acquiring ownership. Methods such as theft, conquest and pillage, for example."

Barnes wrote four mystery novels under the pseudonym Dan Kavanagh, all of which are now out of print; the novels starred Duffy, a bisexual ex–police officer. Kavanagh's bio read in part: "Having devoted his adolescence to truancy, venery and petty theft, he left home at seventeen and signed on as a deckhand on a Liberian tanker." Kavanagh also happens to be the last name of Barnes's agent and wife, Pat.

Barnes was a deputy literary editor under Martin Amis at the New Statesman from 1980–82 and was also a lexicographer for the Oxford English Dictionary. Amis and Barnes later had a falling-out that became fodder for the press when Amis wrote about it in his memoir, Experience; Barnes is mum on the subject, but the disagreement arose when Amis defected from Barnes's wife to another agent.

Barnes has a cameo in the film Bridget Jones's Diary as himself, but in a lesser role than he has in Helen Fielding's book. In the book, Bridget is flummoxed upon encountering Barnes and embarrasses herself; but the more recognizable Salman Rushdie was substituted for Barnes in the film version.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Dan Kavanagh
    2. Hometown:
      London, England
    1. Date of Birth:
      January 19, 1946
    2. Place of Birth:
      Leicester, England
    1. Education:
      Degree in modern languages from Magdalen College, Oxford, 1968

Read an Excerpt

the previous November, a row of wooden beach huts, their paintwork lifted and flaked by the hard east wind, had burnt to the ground. The fire brigade came from twelve miles away, and had nothing to do by the time it arrived. Yobs on Rampage, the local paper decided; though no culprit was ever found. An architect from a more fashionable part of the coastline told the regional TV news that the huts were part of the town’s social heritage, and must be rebuilt. The council announced that it would consider all options, but since then had done nothing.
Vernon had moved to the town only a few months before, and had no feelings about the beach huts. If anything, their disappearance improved the view from the Right Plaice, where he sometimes had lunch. From a window table he now looked out across a strip of concrete to damp shingle, a bored sky and a lifeless sea. That was the east coast: for months on end you got bits of bad weather and lots of no weather. This was fine by him: he’d moved here to have no weather in his life.
“You are done?”
He didn’t look up at the waitress. “All the way from the Urals,” he said, still gazing at the long, flat sea.
 “Nothing between here and the Urals. That’s where the wind comes from. Nothing to stop it. Straight across all those countries.” Cold enough to freeze your knob off, he might have added in other circumstances.
Oorals,” she repeated. As he caught the accent, he looked up at her. A broad face, streaked hair, chunky body, and not doing any waitressy number in hope of a bigger tip. Must be one of those Eastern Europeans who were all over the country nowadays. Building trade, pubs and restaurants, fruit picking. Came over here in vans and coaches, lived in rabbit warrens, made themselves a bit of money. Some stayed, some went home. Vernon didn’t mind one way or the other. That’s what he found more often than not these days: he didn’t mind one way or the other.
“Are you from one of them?”
“One of what?”
“One of those countries. Between here and the Urals.”
Oorals. Yes, perhaps.”
That was an odd answer, he thought. Or maybe her sense of geography wasn’t so strong.
“Fancy a swim?”
“A swim?”
“Yes, you know. Swim. Splash splash, front crawl, breaststroke.”
“No swim.”
“Fine,” he said. He hadn’t meant it anyway. “Bill, please.”
As he waited, he looked back across the concrete to the damp shingle. A beach hut had recently sold for twenty grand. Or was it thirty? Somewhere down on the south coast. Spiralling house prices, the market going mad: that’s what the papers said. Not that it touched this part of the country, or the property he dealt in. The market had bottomed out here long ago, the graph as horizontal as the sea. Old people died, you sold their flats and houses to people who in their turn would get old in them and then die. That was a lot of his trade. The town wasn’t fashionable, never had been: Londoners carried on up the A12 to somewhere pricier. Fine by him. He’d lived in London all his life until the divorce. Now he had a quiet job, a rented flat, and saw the kids every other weekend. When they got older, they’d probably be bored with this place and start acting the little snobs. But for the moment they liked the sea, throwing pebbles into it, eating chips.
When she brought the bill, he said, “We could run away together and live in a beach hut.”
“I do not think,” she replied, shaking her head, as if she assumed he meant it. Oh well, the old English sense of humour, takes a while for people to get used to it.
He had a few rentals to attend to—changes of tenancy, redecoration, damp problems—and then a sale up the coast, so he didn’t return to the Right Plaice for a few weeks. He ate his haddock and mushies, and read the paper. There was some town in Lincolnshire which was suddenly half Polish, there’d been so many immigrants. Nowadays, more Catholics went to church on Sundays than Anglicans, they were saying, what with all these Eastern Europeans. He didn’t mind one way or the other. Actually, he liked the Poles he’d met—brickies, plasterers, electricians. Good workers, well trained, did what they said, trustworthy. It was time the good old British building trade had a kick up the arse, Vernon thought.
The sun was out that day, slanting low across the sea, annoying his eyes. Late March, and bits of spring were getting even to this part of the coast.
“How about that swim, then?” he asked as she brought the bill.
“Oh no. No swim.”
“I’m guessing you might be Polish.”
 “My name is Andrea,” she replied.
“Not that I mind whether you’re Polish or not.”
“I do not also.”
The thing was, he’d never been much good at flirting; never quite said the right thing. And since the divorce, he’d got worse at it, if that was possible, because his heart wasn’t in it. Where was his heart? Question for another day. Today’s subject: flirting. He knew all too well the look in a woman’s eye when you didn’t get it right. Where’s he coming from, the look said. Anyway, it took two to flirt. And maybe he was getting too old for it. Thirty-seven, father of two, Gary (8) and Melanie (5). That’s how the papers would put it if he was washed up on the coast some morning.
“I’m an estate agent,” he said. That was another line which often hampered flirting.
“What is this?”
“I sell houses. And flats. And we do rentals. Rooms, flats, houses.”
“Is it interesting?”
“It’s a living.”
“We all need living.”
He suddenly thought: no, you can’t flirt either. Maybe you can flirt in your own language, but you can’t do it in English, so we’re even. He also thought: she looks sturdy. Maybe I need someone sturdy. She might be my age, for all I know. Not that he minded one way or the other. He wasn’t going to ask her out.
He asked her out. There wasn’t much choice of “out” in this town. One cinema, a few pubs, and the couple of other restaurants where she didn’t work. Apart from that, there was bingo for the old people whose flats he would sell after they were dead, and a club where some halfhearted goths loitered. Kids drove into Colchester on a Friday night and bought enough drugs to see them through the weekend. No wonder they burnt down the beach huts. He liked her at first for what she wasn’t. She wasn’t flirty, she wasn’t gabby, she wasn’t pushy. She didn’t mind that he was an estate agent, or that he was divorced with two kids. Other women had taken a quick look and said: no. He reckoned women were more attracted to men who were still in a marriage, however fucked up it was, than to ones picking up the pieces afterwards. Not surprising really. But Andrea didn’t mind all that. Didn’t ask questions much. Didn’t answer them either, for that matter. The first time they kissed, he thought of asking if she was really Polish, but then he forgot.
He suggested his place, but she refused. She said she’d come next time. He spent an anxious few days wondering what it would be like to go to bed with someone different after so long. He drove fifteen miles up the coast to buy condoms where no one knew him. Not that he was ashamed, or embarrassed; just didn’t want anyone knowing, or guessing, his business.
“This is a nice apartment.”
“Well, if an estate agent can’t find himself a decent flat, what’s the world coming to?”
She had an overnight bag with her; she took off her clothes in the bathroom and came back in a nightdress. They climbed into bed and he turned out the light. She felt very tense to him. He felt very tense to himself.
“We could just cuddle,” he suggested.
“What is cuddle?”
He demonstrated.
“So cuddle is not fucking?”
“No, cuddle is not fucking.”
“OK, cuddle.”
After that they relaxed, and she soon fell asleep. The next time, after some kissing, he reacquainted himself with the lubricated struggle of the condom. He knew he was meant to unroll it, but found himself trying to tug it on like a sock, pulling at the rim in a haphazard way. Doing it in the dark didn’t help either. But she didn’t say anything, or cough discouragingly, and eventually he turned towards her. She pulled up her nightie and he climbed on top of her. His mind was half filled with lust and fucking, and half empty, as if wondering what he was up to. He didn’t think about her very much that first time. It was a question of looking out for yourself. Later you could look out for the other person.
“Was that OK?” he said after a while.
“Yes, was OK.”
Vernon laughed in the dark.
“Are you laughing at me? Was not OK for you?”
“Andrea,” he said, “everything’s OK. Nobody’s laughing at you. I won’t let anyone laugh at you.” As she slept, he thought: we’re starting again, both of us. I don’t know what she’s had in her past, but maybe we’re both starting again from the same sort of low point, and that’s OK. Everything’s OK.
The next time she was more relaxed, and gripped him hard with her legs. He couldn’t tell whether she came or not.
“Gosh you’re strong,” he said afterwards.
“Is strong bad?”
“No, no. Not at all. Strong’s good.”
But the next time he noticed that she didn’t grip him so hard. She didn’t much like him playing with her breasts either. No, that was unfair. She didn’t seem to mind if he did or didn’t. Or rather, if he wanted to, that was fine, but it was for him, not for her. That’s what he understood, anyway. And who said you had to talk about everything in the first week?
He was glad neither of them was any good at flirting: it was a kind of deception. Whereas Andrea was never anything but straight with him. She didn’t talk much, but what she said was what she did. She would meet him where and when he asked, and be standing there, looking out for him, brushing a streak of hair out of her eyes, holding on to her bag more firmly than was necessary in this town.
“You’re as reliable as a Polish builder,” he told her one day.
“Is that good?”
“That’s very good.”
“Is English expression?”
“It is now.”
She asked him to correct her English when she made a mistake. He got her to say “I don’t think so” instead of “I do not think”; but actually, he preferred the way she talked. He always understood her, and those phrases which weren’t quite right seemed part of her. Maybe he didn’t want her talking like an Englishwoman in case she started behaving like an Englishwoman— well, like one in particular. And anyway, he didn’t want to play the teacher.
It was the same in bed. Things are what they are, he said to himself. If she always wore a nightie, perhaps it was a Catholic thing—not that she ever mentioned going to church. If he asked her to do stuff to him, she did it, and seemed to enjoy it; but she didn’t ask him to do stuff back to her—didn’t even seem to like his hand down there much. But this didn’t bother him; she was allowed to be who she was.
She never asked him in. If he dropped her off, she’d be trotting up the concrete path before he’d got the hand brake on; if he picked her up, she’d already be outside, waiting. At first this was fine, then it began to feel a bit odd, so he asked to see where she lived, just for a minute, so he could imagine where she was when she wasn’t with him. They went back into the house— 1930s semi, pebbledash, multioccupation, metal window frames rusting up badly—and she opened her door. His professional eye took in the dimensions, furnishings, and probable rental cost; his lover’s eye took in a small dressing table with photos in plastic frames and a picture of the Virgin. There was a single bed, tiny sink, rubbish microwave, small TV, and clothes on hangers clipped precariously to the picture rail. Something in him was touched by seeing her life exposed like that in the minute or so before they stepped outside again. To cover this sudden emotion, Vernon said,
“You shouldn’t be paying more than fifty-five. Plus services. I can get you somewhere bigger for the same price.”
“Is OK.”
Now that spring was here, they went for drives into Suffolk and looked at English things: half-timbered houses with no damp courses, thatched roofs which put you in a higher insurance band. They stopped by a village green and he sat down on a bench overlooking a pond, but she didn’t fancy that so they looked at the church instead. He hoped she wouldn’t ask him to explain the difference between Anglicans and Catholics—or the history behind it all. Something about Henry the Eighth wanting to get married again. The king’s knob. All sorts of things came down to sex if you looked at them closely enough. But happily she didn’t ask.
She began to take his arm, and to smile more easily. He gave her the key to his flat; tentatively, she started leaving over night stuff there. One Sunday, in the dark, he reached across to the bedside drawer and found he was out of condoms. He swore, and had to explain.
“Is OK.”
“No, Andrea, is bloody not OK. Last thing I need is you getting
“I do not think so. Not get pregnant. Is OK.”
He trusted her. Later, as she slept, he wondered what exactly she had meant. That she couldn’t have kids? Or that she was taking something herself, to make doubly sure? If so, what would the Virgin Mary have to say about that? Let’s hope she isn’t relying on the rhythm method, he suddenly thought. Guaranteed to fail on a regular basis and keep the pope as happy as Larry. Time passed; she met Gary and Melanie; they took to her. She didn’t tell them what to do; they told her, and she went along with it. They also asked her questions he’d never dared, or cared, to ask.
“Andrea, are you married?”
“Can we watch TV as long as we like?”
“Were you married?”
“If I ate three would I be sick?”
“Why aren’t you married?”
“How old are you?”
“What team do you support?”
“You got any children?”
“Are you and Dad getting married?”
He learnt the answers to some of these questions—like any sensible woman, she wasn’t telling her age. One night, in the dark, after he’d delivered the kids back, and was too upset for sex, as he always was on these occasions, he said, “Do you think you could love me?”
“Yes, I think I would love you.”
“Is that a would or a could?”
“What is the difference?”
He paused. “There’s no difference. I’ll take either. I’ll take both. I’ll take whatever you’ve got to give.”

From the Hardcover edition.

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Reading Group Guide

1. “East Wind”
Vernon’s wife had told him, “I just can’t live with you because you always fuck things up” (p. 12). What does he do to prove that his wife was right? Why does Vernon betray Andrea’s tentative alliance with him by invading her privacy? What would this story be like if told from Andrea’s point of view?

2. “At Phil & Joanna’s 1: 60/40”
The four “At Phil and Joanna’s” stories are constructed entirely of dialogue and produce the effect of a continuous conversation. Is it difficult to make out who is speaking, and does it matter? What social class do these characters belong to? What pleasures do they take in being together?

3. “Sleeping with John Updike”
What undercurrents are notable in the friendship between Alice and Jane? Who is envious of whom? Which friend is more dependent upon the other? Which aspects of the story strike you as most true, considering friendships between women?

4. “At Phil & Joanna’s 2: Marmalade”
The presence of an American at Phil and Joanna’s highlights the particular psychological and social condition of being English. How is English identity expressed and underscored in this story?

5. “Gardeners World”
How, and why, does the acquisition of a garden upset the equilibrium of Ken and Martha’s marriage? What biblical story do you associate with a couple in a garden? Is this marriage really “a democracy of two”?

6. “At Phil & Joanna’s 3: Look, No Hands”
The characters revisit the premise of Raymond Carver’s well-known story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Why is there a long pause after each mention of the word “love” (p. 81, 82)? Is it mainly the men who wish to avoid the subject? What do they talk about instead of love? How would you describe these couples, and what, if any, progress is made in their ideas?

7. “Trespass”
Like “East Wind,” this story focuses on a new relationship from the man’s point of view. What qualities in Geoff get on Lynn’s nerves and vice versa? Is Geoff more interested in hiking than in Lynn?

8. “At Phil and Joanna’s 4: One in Five”
What do the four “At Phil and Joanna’s” stories have in common? What kind of impression does the series make? What subjects come up repeatedly? How would these conversations be different with an American setting, in people of roughly the same education and social class?

9. “Marriage Lines”
What does the description of the knitting patterns in local fishermen’s sweaters reveal about the islanders’ understanding of life and death? Why will the widower not return to the island? How does he come to the realization that “he was not in charge of grief. Grief was in charge of him” (p. 128)?

10. “The Limner”
The painter decides that for his final painting, he will make a portrait of his beloved horse (p. 134). Why will this be more satisfying than his usual work? What does the story suggest about the power of the artist to be truthful and just? What do the painter and servants know about dignity that the master does not?

11. “Complicity”
How important is a sense of “complicity” between potential lovers, and what details illustrate this? Both people in this couple have conditions that affect their sense of touch: the man a skin allergy and the woman has poor circulation that leaves her fingers numb, so she wears gloves. How is Barnes using the sense of touch to suggest its role in romantic attraction?

12. “Harmony”
What is wrong with the blind musician in relation to her parents? Does the doctor M—- seem to be using an early form of psychoanalysis, such as Freud used on his so-called hysterical patients? The doctor’s operating principle is “music seeks harmony, just as the human body seeks harmony” (159). Does this seem sensible in attempting to heal physical and psychological illness?

13. “Carcassonne”
“Falling in love is the most violent expression of taste known to us” (p. 189), says the narrator, having told the story of Garibaldi’s first sight, through a telescope, of his wife-to-be Anita Riberas. Discuss the story’s ideas about the mystery of taste, and the concept of love at first sight.

14. “Pulse”
What does the narrator’s careful fitness regimen tell us about him? What is his relationship with his parents like? What does he learn about his parents’ marriage when his father loses his sense of smell (p. 200)?

15. The narrator asks, “Do you think there are people who have a talent for marriage, or is it just a question of luck? You would think, wouldn’t you, that if you were the child of a happy marriage, then you ought to have a better than average marriage yourself—either through some genetic inheritance or because you’d learnt from example? But it doesn’t seem to work like that” (p. 217). Why haven’t love and marriage worked for him?

16. Several of the stories feature awkward men who have difficulty with women. Compare Vernon from “East Wind,” Geoff from “Trespass,” and the narrator of “Pulse.”

17. What do the stories of the collection imply with regard to the different talents of men and women for empathy and intimacy? Which of the marriages in the collection seems most successful?

18. How do the stories in Part Two highlight the nature of human attraction? What role does Barnes attribute to the five senses play in the process?

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