11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on 10 October 2011
Like most collections of short stories, the quality and interest of the individual stories varies. I found the final one - "Pulse", from which the volume gets its title - the most satisfying, if that is the right word for a story told by a man whose own marriage is disintegrating and whose elderly parents are facing serious health problems. In thirty pages Barnes creates a poignant picture of three people who are determinedly resilient in the face of life's problems. There are several further similarly sad stories, whilst others are lighter, for example the four separate "At Phil and Joanna's" stories which recount the dinner party conversations of a group of friends. I would like to think that these conversations are meant to be a caricature of the sorts of conversations that slightly smug middle class people might hold at dinner parties, since each participant seems to be trying to impress the others by how clever he/she is, and in the process they all come across as rather unlikeable. I quite enjoyed reading these stories once I had decided to view them as caricatures, but I can't help wondering whether this was really Barnes's intention. Perhaps he really does talk to his friends like this! As usual with Barnes's writing there is plenty of wit; I particularly enjoyed his observation on page 180 about a group of four noisily quarrelling people that "Mozart would have happily set this operatic quartet to music".
The short story format is a challenging one for a serious novelist, since it doesn't provide the opportunity for extended development of characters and themes. It is therefore difficult for even the very best writers to write anything memorable in this format. As an illustration, what are your ten favourite books? I suspect that virtually no-one would include a collection of short stories in his or her list. So, it's perhaps sensible to assess the quality of such a collection against that of other similar collections rather than against full length novels. I tried this with Barnes's volume. I have recently read or re-read three other similar collections: Kazuo Ishiguro's Nocturnes; Graham Greene's Twenty-One Stories; and Doris Lessing's The Story Of A Non-Marrying Man And Other Stories. For me, Barnes doesn't come near to matching Lessing, but this is hardly a serious criticism since she probably represents the gold standard in terms of modern short fiction. I thought, though, that Barnes's collection was much better than Ishiguro's and also somewhat better than Greene's. So, Barnes can stand his ground with some of the best, and I think that this collection deserves to be widely read.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 20 January 2012
This is the first collection of Julian Barnes' short stories that I have read, having previously enjoyed Arthur and George. This is an exceptionally enjoyable and diverse collection that frequently hits notes of beauty along the way.
Overall, these stories have a wide variety of starting points and settings, although there are recurring characters in the four "At Phil and Joanna" stories that are interleaved into the first half of the book. The "Phil and Joanna" stories follow the conversations of a group of friends attending dinner parties at a number of occasions. The speakers aren't identified, leaving the reader to work out whose voice is whose, and they have a realistic feel whilst also being very funny.
Whilst there humour to be found within the other stories, there is a sense of loneliness or loss running through a number of the stories. Whilst the story "Marriage Lines" focuses more explicitly on bereavement, it is often more subtly explored in the other stories. Barnes introduces us to a range of characters who have found themselves isolated either by through circumstances beyond them, or inadvertently of their own making. So, we are introduced to a pair of mid-list female novelists competing against each other but with no one to go home to in "Sleeping with John Updike"; we meet a rambler struggling to find a soul-mate in "Trespass"; "The Limner" is about a deaf portrait painter; and in "Harmony" features a pianist being treated for her loss of sight. My personal favourite was "Gardner's Questions", which focuses on a domestic tiff about what to do when a couple acquire a house with a garden for the first time. The characters are always well drawn, the narrators voice works well in each story and these are stories that are frequently moving.
Ultimately the stories are all well put together and it would be difficult to pick out a truly dud story, although I found "Carcassonne" and "Complicity" slightly less enjoyable than other stories. The stories in this volume don't end with a bang nor will get the readers' pulse racing - instead they are more low-key and successfully say much about human relationships and our own private worlds.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 7 September 2011
Short stories are the most under rated and technically difficult form of literature; so when someone gets it right it's all the more impressive. Barnes has nailed it! The style reminds me of John Cheever, and some of the stories are almost as good!
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Julian Barnes is arguably the most distinctive English voice of his generation. Forget the pompous, wannabe yankee that is Martin Amis, and the overly theoretical Ian McEwan - Julian Barnes is the one whose prose is more immediately recognisable and more evidently his own.
When transferring such a voice to audio, it's obviously imperative that an equally distinctive voice is used. The one chosen for this recording, David Rintoul's, fits the bill very well: eloquent, and upper middle-class, just like Barnes's.
The stories themselves, like Barnes's previous short story collection, "The Lemon Table", all pivot around a theme. While "The Lemon Table" was obsessed with death, "Pulse" turns more to the approach to death and focuses it through the lens of relationships, many of which are newly established due to the death of a protagonist's previous partner.
It is in this territory - the relationship - that Barnes took his early, and has arguably taken all of, his literary steps. From 1982's "Before She Met Me" to 1991's "Talking in Over" and its 2000 sequel, "Love, etc", the quirks and trivialities of everyday, middle-class love have been his overriding theme, and it is the same attention to detail in chronicling everyday love that makes this collection sizzle; while his decision to shoot everything through with a tinge of impending or recent death adds poignancy, absurdity and humour.
From the bereaved walker of "Trespass" who records the times of his walks with his deceased wife and his new lover and compares the two, to "East Wind", where a man who finds himself in a strangely uncomfortable relationship with a younger eastern European before being deserted by her, the collection is full of people who have had their sense of the world turned upside down by love, death or both, and are now scrambling to recreate a sense of equilibrium as their years draw to a close.
The four-part story, "At Phil and Joanna's", sees Barnes relay the musings, often witterings, of a group of, you guessed it, elderly middle-class folk, at a dinner party. Every conversation inevitably returns to sex, and whether it changes as you get older, while sniffing at other middle-class concerns - gardening; food; politics considered from afar - and David Rintoul does a wonderful job of animating all four parts of it.
The only downside for me is the way the whole package is put together. There is no tracklisting, meaning you don't know when a story is going to end - and which was particularly annoying when I had taken only one of the six discs in the car, assuming each disc would end with the concluding of a story, only to discover that some discs in fact end mid-way through a story and continue on the next disc. I should probably stop moaning about such trivial things though - I'm starting to sound like a character in a Julian Barnes short story.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
It strikes me that there are two aspects to consider in reviewing this audiobook version of Pulse: firstly the material itself and secondly the presentation of this audio format. Perversely, let's take the second part first.
In terms of sleeve information, it would have been useful to have a printed table of contents and possibly to relate this to "track numbers" to ease finding of material. Not including this is fine for a novel, but with a series of short stories, it is an obvious omission. In terms of David Rintoul's narration, he has a nice reading voice that is easy to listen to, but he's not the most gifted in terms of providing different character voices, which is a hindrance in some of these pieces which are very conversational. At one point he appears to read a reference that one character grew up in South Africa, so he quickly puts in a little South African inflection, only to find that the other characters didn't know he grew up there, so drops it again. It's a small point in an otherwise nice reading voice, but with Barnes, it's more of a hindrance than with more descriptive writers.
And so to the material itself. The book kicks off with an interesting and downbeat story (East Wind) about a relationship between a man and a Eastern European waitress. The story has a satisfying arc and is a good start. We then move to the first of four stories that are interspersed throughout the book entitled At Phil & Joanna's. These are effectively middle class dinner party conversations. Barnes has long been a keen observer and satirist of middle class Britain, and one suspects his readership base has been very much in this area as well. As a young writer, Barnes' ability to satire this section of society was interesting and often very amusing, but I'm less convinced as he has reached the age that he is now satirising. It's only a personal view, but I felt uncomfortable at the lines between comment and the author's own views. Having reached this age, for me it would be more interesting to see him turn to looking at perhaps the younger generation's views. The feeling I had was not dissimilar to watching aging rockers trying to be cool and hip by churning out music that they should have grown out of. I'm aware that's harsh, but it was nevertheless my feeling. Saying that, there are some amusing moments in the four stories but here David Rintoul's lack of characterisation of voices is at its most annoying. It may be my imagination but at times he also seems to get the "wrong" voice when someone has spoken in a number of the stories.
I loved the two female writers of a certain age returning from a literature festival in Sleeping with John Updike. Both seemed very real and touchingly insecure. Gardeners World is a typically Barnes subject addressing the competitiveness of gardening desires amongst a middle class British couple and is well observed and often amusing in what it says about people in a marriage. I enjoyed Trespass too, about a recent divorcee and his obsession with walking. It's similar in tone to a later story, Complicity, which I also enjoyed - perfectly observed and subtle. But the pick of the bunch is the final, and longest piece - Pulse.
Marriage Lines is a downbeat attempt at a bereaved husband returning to a Scottish island but it didn't come alive for me, neither did the later Carcassonne. The Limner and Harmony are both more conventionally short stories both set in historic times. Both could have been longer pieces and both offer some interesting ideas.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Julian Barnes is a proper writer. That he loves his
craft and loves the magic of words is evident each time
we immerse ourselves in his many fine novels, essays
and journalism. A literary heavyweight for our times.
This recording of the collection of his short stories,
'Pulse', is brought to magificent life by the actor
David Rintoul. It is a virtuoso performance. The tense
interiority and complexity of Mr Barnes' narratives do
not easily give themselves up to being read aloud but
Mr Rintoul steers us through the subtle rhythms of the language
with consummate clarity of expression and incisive nuance.
From the vulgar, drunken dinner party banter of 'At Phil
and Joanna's', where Mr Rintoul excells in keeping the
fast-paced dialogue moving whilst simultaneously remembering
to differentiate between the protagonists' whirling voices
is a small miracle of both invention and memory, to the
heartbreaking reflections of a man coping with the death of his
wife on a return journey to the Hebridean island where they used to
holiday together ('Marriage Lines'); recollection and loss are carved
out of the smallest details of the landscape. Their connection to an
irretrievable past is tenderly and touchingly managed.
From the riduculous to the sublime, Mr Barnes and (for him)
Mr Rentoul barely misses a beat. This is truly wonderful stuff!
'Sleeping With John Updike' gets a particularly delightful
performance. The tale of two lady writers on a train journey
reflecting about life and love is a playful piece which also
captures the pathos of time passing and missed opportunities.
A warm and affecting portrayal of a unique friendship.
There are 6 CDs in the set with a playing time of almost
seven hours, so 'Pulse' is a big listen! The experience is
somewhat marred, however, by the absence (beyond the barest
biographical and production details) of a coherent table of
contents and track listings making the whole almost impossible
to navigate without losing one's patience. Bad Job BBC!
Highly Recommended Nonetheless.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Julian Barnes came to prominence with the novel A History of the World in Ten and a Half Chapters. He is an English stylist of the first order, writing prose like cut glass filled with precise observation and ironic commentary in a tradition that stretches back through Roth, Updike, Henry James and Jane Austen to the sensibility of Dryden and Pope. These tales, mostly of amatory relationship and failing friendship, of cynicism and ennui, of uncertain hope and loss, recall Updike's Couples. Like Updike's stories, they mostly observe the middle classes and draw on the author's own experience and in some cases opinions, classic commedy of manners.
Some of the stories draw on the great archetypal themes. A man and a woman begin to fall in love. At the outset, he has no great expectations of life, nothing much moves him. Set at the seaside, it is life as a sluggish swell. She, it turns out, is seeking to escape from her past; he has few expectations of the future. When love starts to move in him, he wants to know her mysterious past and, as in the folktales or the story of Lohengrin, only succeeds in losing her.
A young couple, uncommitted to marriage, slide into the commitment of the new home. But their convergent trajectories cross each other and continue into ever widening division. And what is the hinge of this division. It is the almost undiscussed issue of what to do with the garden. The particularity of the mundane is the sandpaper of friction.
This is what Barnes does particularly brilliantly: the significance of the ordinary. Like Flaubert, it is the rhythm and precision of the writing, which matches the precision of observation, that elevates the stories. The quartet, `At Phil and Joanna's', each of which recounts the slightly drunken, socially acerbic after dinner conversation of the same characters, might appear not to be able to last the test of time, filled as they are with contemporary post-millennium issues, the unwarranted attack on the legitimacy of smoking (I believe a particular topic of Julian Barnes), the potential of Obama. But ultimately, these are not stories about their subject matter, but about the mild futility of the roundabout, circling and going-nowhere conversations that reflect roundabout, circling and going-nowhere lives. Yet, this amounts to something, maybe, in Barnes's world, because of the ability of their inhabitants to observe and reflect on the mild futility of life, buoyed up by a good lamb fricassee and the charm of chat. Eat, drink and converse, for tomorrow you die.
Ultimately, this is a world in which God and other big dramas are replaced by the modesty of individual mortality and the need to make something of a relatively short life, when even such an ambition might be regarded as optimistic. It's brilliantly done and, while sometimes sad, not I think depressing: there is even a mild uplifting of the spirit, carried on the wave of his wonderful writing, supported in this uncompressed, fulltext audio version, by the nuanced and imaginative reading of the actor David Rintoul.
I agree with other comments about the lack of information about the tracks on this six CD audio version, but for me a larger complaint is that there is an insufficient gap between the stories. Each comes to an emotional conclusion and we are instantly plunged into the next with no time for digestion. It means you have to be close to the button or remote. Still, it's good to have an emotional conclusion that you want to fight for.
One more point worth making: I enjoyed listening to the stories in the car; some audio recordings don't clearly come through the general background noise without the volume being turned well up. On this recording, Rintoul and the engineers did rather well.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 31 March 2012
To begin with the words on the cover from the various reviewers are quite inappropriate. I suspect they have been written in view of Barnes' previous literary successes. There is no doubt that Barnes can write well but there is little or no evidence of his talent in this book. Short fiction is clearly not his forte. While most of these stories have beginnings and middles most lack a satisfactory ending. The reader is left bereft and quite unsatisfied. The Phil and Joanna stories are a new idea but one which I hope Barnes will give up. There is no sense of time and very little sense of place, let alone any visuals for any of the characters. In fact they are basically a total bore from beginning to end. By the time I got to the last one I had extreme difficulty forcing myself to read the inane dialogue.
Stick to writing novels Julian. It's what you do best. Maybe a revisit to writing classes might help with your drab boring endings though!
I have given this book 2 stars only as the stories are dreary and dull but they are at least well crafted.
This characteristically resonant collection of stories about the mysteries of love and relationship between a man and a woman comes at you in two parts, explicitly delineated in the book's table of contents. The second part contains five tales, each of which incorporates the failing of one of the senses, and the effect that has on perception and communication. This overarching theme is a neat hook, but it's done so subtly that you hardly notice what's going on. The culmination of this sequence comes in the title story, in which the narrator describes the arc of a relationship with a woman whilst his mother is coming to grips with a debilitating illness and his father loses his sense of smell - three interlocking strands which combine to illuminate the closeness, and then the increasing distance between, the protagonists. Barnes tells the story in a matter-of-fact style which imparts moments of deep insight - here, for example, the narrator asks his mother what she thinks of his girlfriend [p205]:
"You do like Janice, don't you?"
"Of course I do. As long as she makes you happy."
"That sounds... conditional."
"Well, it is. A mother's love is unconditional. A mother-in-law's love is conditional. That's how it's always been."
The stories in the first part of the collection are less obviously connected, but the concern with relationship, breakdown and (non-)communication runs through them like a thread. An especial highlight of this section is the four-part tale "At Phil and Joanna's", which consists entirely of unascribed dialogue within a group of couples who are smart, witty and intelligent - until, that is, the topic of love is raised. "Marriage Lines", a weightier piece, features a grieving widower revisiting a favourite holiday destination in search of memories of his wife (other reviewers have wondered about a connection to the death of the author's wife a few years before this book was published in 2011). And the main character in "East Wind" finds himself unable to resist the need to find out more about the object of his affection (with results that are - at least emotionally - reminiscent of those in Barnes's earlier tragedy, Before She Met Me).
I found the tales in this collection to be elegant, touching and compelling, with a deep-rooted intelligence which rewards thoughtful consideration. Recommended.
on 31 August 2013
If ever a collection of short stories proved to me that novelists should not write short stories and short story writers should not write novels - unless they appreciate the huge differences between the forms and write accordingly for each - this is it.
Julian Barnes' stories or, perhaps more accurately, slices of life ramble on in a way that might not matter too much in a novel but which is completely inappropriate to the effective telling of a short story. He seems not to have any inkling of the difference between them - or, perhaps, no respect for the short story form.
Often, there is no discernible story. I skipped a couple of the 'stories' altogether because they started in a way that failed to hook me at all. All the others I forced myself to read, except for the last two of the four Phil & Joanna stories which were irritating beyond belief and I could not make myself read another.
Barnes has a schoolboyish obsession with sex which pervades every story. And there is more than a hint of misogyny in the air. But his main objective seems to be the mocking of people he considers to be beneath him, both socially and intellectually. His characters have names like Sue, Dick, Vernon, Ken, Cath & Geoff - and he does not portray them sympathetically. There are no Henriettas, Ruperts, Bertrams or, indeed, Julians. None of them went to Oxford (at least, not in the stories I got through). I guess it's easier to patronise people you don't respect or understand than take a cool, honest look at people like yourself or to try to really understand people who are not like you. But is that what a good writer sets out to do?
On top of all of this, what Julian Barnes fails to do in this collection of stories (except one, of which more later) is move me. He fails to find the universal in his characters and their situations, the spark of recognition that draws us in and makes us care. I am not interested in the petty concerns of the middle classes. Dig a little deeper, please, show us things that matter.
There is one story that I can recommend: Marriage Lines. It is written much more tightly than the other stories and is, therefore, appropriately brief. It is the one honest story in this collection, clearly written from the pain of losing his wife, and it did move me. His snobbery is still evident, though; but at least here, he is candid about it: 'This time, Calum and Flora treated him as he knew they would: with a tact and modesty he had once, stupidly, Englishly, mistaken for deference.'
Yes, the 'lower classes' can behave with intelligence, kindness and dignity, Mr Barnes. Who knew?