Love, etc by Julian Barnes
Barnes presents his characters as talking heads. They speak out of the page directly to the reader. This is Gillian:
You catch yourself thinking, well, we could always put it off to another time – it’s not as if we’re going anywhere. That moment of wanting gets more . . . fragile, I think. You’re watching a TV programme, half thinking about going to bed, then you change channels, watch some rubbish and within twenty minutes you’re both yawning and the moment’s gone. Or one of you wants to read and the other one doesn’t and he/she lies there in the half-dark waiting for the light to be put out, and then the waiting, the hope, turns to mild resentment, and the moment goes, and that’s it. Or, a few days go past – more than usual, anyway – and you find that time works both ways simultaneously. On the one hand you miss sex and on the other you begin to forget about it. When we were kids we used to think that monks and nuns must be secretly randy all the time. Now I think: I bet they don’t worry about it at all, most of them, I bet it just goes away.
Don’t get me wrong. I like sex; so does Oliver. And I still like sex with Oliver. He knows what I like and what I want. Orgasm is not a problem. We know the best way to get there, for both of us. You could say that was almost part of the problem. If there is one. I mean, we almost always make love in the same way – same amount of time, same length of (horrid word) foreplay, same position, or positions. And we do it like that because that’s what works best – that’s what experience has told us we like best. So it becomes a tyranny, or obligation, or something. In any case, impossible to get out of. The rule about married sex, if you’re interested – and you may not be -is that after a few years you aren’t allowed to do anything you haven’t done before. Yes, I know, I’ve read all those article and advice columns about how to spice up your sex life, about getting him to buy you special underwear, and sometimes just having a romantic candlelit dinner for two, and setting aside quality time to be together, and I just laugh because life isn’t like that. My life, anyway. Quality time? There’s always another load of washing.
Our sex life is . . . friendly. Do you know what I mean? Yes, I can see that you do. Perhaps all too well. We’re partners in the act. We enjoy one another’s company in the act. We do our best for one another, we look after one another in the act. Our sex life is . . . friendly. I’m sure there are worse things. Much worse.
Have I put you off? He or she beside you has had their light out for some time now. They’re doing that breathing which is meant to sound like sleep but doesn’t really. You probably said, “I’ll just finish this bit,” and got a friendly grunt in reply, but then you read on a bit longer than you thought. But it doesn’t matter now, does it? Because I’ve put you off. You don’t feel like sex any more. Do you?
In a previous novel (Talking It Over, 1991), Gillian and Stuart were married. Feckless Oliver was Stuart’s best friend and he seduced Gillian and stole her away.
Now they are ten years older, and only a little wiser. Stuart has become a businessman and regards himself as a success. Pretentious Oliver has fallen on hard times and seems unable to get his life together. And Gillian, the sensible but pedestrian one, is still in the middle.
Each character, in turn, tries to seduce us with a personal version of the truth. But in the end we are left with the suspicion that there is no truth, that the truth does not exist as an objective entity. I was left with the same feeling I get from exposure to a Beckett script; that we wait for something that happens or doesn’t happen and then we die. We don’t connect, not really.
Having said that, one should not under estimate Julian Barnes’ wry humour. He has the capacity to hear and communicate the despair which underlays laughter and is always ready to give the nod of recognition to our absurdities.
Intelligent and moving, this is a book to seek out.