Before She Met Me by Julian Barnes
Graham goes to see Jack; they talk about a new development in his relationship with Ann. Jack advises him:
‘Well, there’s always one solution . . .’ Graham sat up straighter in his chair. This was what he’d come for. Of course, Jack would know what to do, would know the right answer. That was why he’d come here; he knew he was right to come. ‘. . . You should love her less.’
‘Love her less. May sound a bit old fashioned, but it’d work. You don’t have to hate her or dislike her or anything – don’t go over the edge. Just learn to detatch yourself a little. Be her friend if you like. Love her less.’
Graham hesitated. He didn’t quite know where to begin. Eventually he said,
‘I cry when the houseplants die.’
‘Come again, squire?’
She had these African violets. I mean, I don’t like African violets much, and neither does Ann. I think she was given them. She’s got lots of other plants she likes a lot more. And they got sort of plant chicken pox or something, and they dies. Ann didn’t mind at all. I went up to my study and cried. Not about them – I just found myself thinking about her watering them, and putting that fertilizer stuff on them, and, you know, not her feelings about the sodding plants – she didn’t really have any, as I said – but her time, her being there, her life.. . .
‘I’ll tell you another thing. After she’s gone to work, the first thing I do is take out my diary and write down everything she’s got on. Shoes, tights, dress, bra, knickers, raincoat, hair-grip, rings. What colour. Everything. Often it’s the same, of course, but I still write it down. And then occasionally, throughout the day, I take out my diary and look it up. I don’t try to memorize what she’s looking like – that’d be cheating. I get out my diary – sometimes when I’m teaching and pretend to be thinking about essay titles or something – and I sit there, sort of dressing her. It’s very . . . nice.
‘I’ll tell you another thing. I always clear the table after dinner. I go through to the kitchen, and I scrape my plate off into the kitchen bin, and then I suddenly find myself eating whatever she’s left on hers. Often, you know, it isn’t anything particularly nice – bits of fat and discoloured vegetables and sausage gristle – but I just scoff it. And then I go back and sit down opposite her, and I find myself thinking about our stomachs, about how whatever I’ve just eaten might easily have been inside her, but’s inside me instead. I think, what an odd moment it must have been for that food, when the knife came down and the fork pushed it this way rather than that, and instead of lying inside you it’s lying inside me. And that sort of makes me feel closer to Ann.
‘And I’ll tell you another thing. Sometimes, she gets up in the night and has a pee, and it’s dark and she’s half asleep and she somehow – God knows how she does it, but she does – she misses the bowl with the piece of paper she dries herself with. And I’ll go in there in the morning and find it lying on the floor. And – it’s not knicker-sniffing or anything like that – I sort of look at it and I feel . . . soft. It’s like one of those paper flowers that bad comedians wear in their buttonholes. It seems pretty, and colourful, and decorative. I could almost wear it in my buttonhole: I pick it up and shove it back in the bowl, but I feel sentimental afterwards.’
A book about a man who is jealous of the relationships his wife had before she met him is not normal fodder for me. In fact, had I known beforehand that this was the subject of Julian Barnes’ 1982 novel, I may well have left it untouched. And that would have been a pity.
But are there men as dumb as Graham? Well, yes, I suppose there are, it’s just that they’re difficult to meet as they don’t get out too much. Let us be thankful for small mercies.
At around the age of 40 Graham Hendrick, a British historian leaves his wife and daughter and marries a younger woman, Ann, who has been an actor in the movies. Although he loves her deeply and appreciates that she has brought more affection and emotion into his life than he ever expected or deserved, Graham slowly allows himself to be consumed by jealousy. But his jealousy is not about anything that happens between them in the present, rather about any affairs she may have had in the past, both in the real world and in the fictional world of her screen roles.
Blurring the lines between past and present and between fiction and reality are not exactly new territory for the novel, but in the hands of Julian Barnes they take on a freshness which involve humour and terror in close proximity and which lead inexorably to a frightening and highly dramatic conclusion.
Barnes has the ability to look at the everyday and transform it into something special, and in this novel it is his ability to transcend the normal which keeps us reading. We don’t necessarily believe what is depicted on the page, but each page is so studded with delights that we turn over hoping for more and are rarely disappointed.
Before She Met Me is a short novel, coming in at 174 pages, so it is a quick read. The conclusion is, ultimately, a disappointment, but everything leading up to it is time well spent.