Pulse – Julian Barnes

A bit of an update:
I’ve been a bit lazy in the writing department these days. There are a few books sitting on my desk, waiting to be reviewed, and a few others that I can’t wait to start reading. Right now I’m enjoying a long awaited holiday and also keeping my fingers crossed that the rains will stop so I can go on a trip I’ve been dreaming about since last year. Until then, I’ll try to get back to writing and this is the first (overdue) review. Happy reading!



The book contains 14 stories (I wonder if the author was superstitious) about life, choices, love and marriage. I was attracted to this book by the title – it seemed like an interesting name for a book.
While at the bookstore I started reading the first story, East Wind, about Vernon, a late thirties divorcee, who falls in love with Andrea, an East European waitress. There was something funny and likable about Vernon, and I decided to take the book home and continue reading.

What I really liked about this book was the way the author managed to infuse the stories with humor but also with sadness at the same time, a notable accomplishment which is tricky to achieve within the same story. There’s also a bit of cynical witticism in the “At Phil and Joanna’s” stories (there were four), in which a group of friends gather for dinner and some verbal banter. The dialogue is entertaining and well written, the topics ranging from politics and grammar to sex and religion to name just a few.

Another story I particularly liked was The Limner. I must confess I had never heard the word before (and that is yet another reason why I liked this book – finding new words) and had to look it up in the dictionary. The limner, Mr. Wadsworth, is a traveling portrait artist. He can’t speak or hear, due to a childhood illness, but that doesn’t mean he’s dumb, as some of his customers seem to think. Attention to detail is observed not only when painting, but also when dealing with others and he manages to form an accurate opinion of the people he meets. This is one of my favorite passages from the story:

“The limner had shown the collector of customs some miniatures of children, hoping to change his mind, but Tuttle merely shook his head. Wadsworth was disappointed, partly for reasons of money, but more because his delight in painting children had increased as that in painting their progenitors had declined. Children were more mobile than adults, more deliquescent of shape, it was true. But they also looked him in the eye, and when you were deaf you heard with your eyes. Children held his gaze, and he thereby perceived their nature. Adults often looked away, whether from modesty or a desire for concealment; while some, like the collector, stared back challengingly, with a false honesty, as if to say, Of course my eyes are concealing things, but you lack the discernment to realise it. Such clients judged Wadsworth’s affinity with children proof that he was as deficient in understanding as the children were. Whereas Wadsworth found in their affinity with him proof that they saw as clearly as he did.”

In Carcassonne, the author explores the concept of marriage, how couples meet and what keeps them together over the years. Is it passion, like the type Garibaldi and his wife Anita felt the first time they laid eyes on each other, or is it something more subdued, like the man who had met his wife at an office party and when asked what did he feel when he saw her, said “I thought she was very nice”. Do couples without children have more chances of staying together, unencumbered by responsibilities and worn out by worries, and what about gay couples? Questions, musings, experiences shared. No miraculous recipe for a long, happy marriage, only doubt and various perspectives – it’s all a roll of the dice.

There were a couple of stories I didn’t care much about. While I had no complaints about the writing style, which by the way, seems to flow nicely enough, those stories in themselves fell short of interesting. But then it’s almost inevitable for this to happen in a book of short stories.
An entertaining read, quite different from the books I usually pick. I have to admit I was more excited about this book when I finished it but for some reason I postponed writing a review and in time my enthusiasm decreased considerably, which is a shame, really…

*Read in August 2011

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5 Responses to Pulse – Julian Barnes

  1. Vishy says:

    Wonderful review, Delia! The stories you have described are all very interesting. ‘Carcassonne’ looks especially interesting because it explores a fascinating topic from different perspectives, without giving one ‘recipe’ as you have put it. I too haven’t heard the word ‘limner’ before. I don’t think there are many words with ‘n’ following ‘m’ 🙂 It is nice to know that four of the short stories had the same characters. It makes me remember a book called ‘Dandelion Wine’ by Ray Bradbury, which was a collection of short stories, which had the same characters. which were published earlier, and which were compiled into one book. Later, the publishers positioned it as a novel. I loved the passage you have quoted, especially the lines – “Such clients judged Wadsworth’s affinity with children proof that he was as deficient in understanding as the children were. Whereas Wadsworth found in their affinity with him proof that they saw as clearly as he did.”

    Thanks for this wonderful review! I haven’t read a Julian Barnes book fully yet – I have read only bits and pieces of his books ‘A History of the world in 10 1/2 chapters’ and ‘Nothing to be frightened of’. I will keep an eye for ‘Pulse’ when I go to the library next time.

    • Delia says:

      Hi, Vishy.
      I keep hearing about Dandelion Wine, I think you mentioned it in a comment a while ago. 🙂 Sounds intriguing.
      Short stories were not really on my TBR list until I decided I needed a break from the longer novels. A change of pace is good every now and then.
      That was my favorite line as well but I wanted to give a bit of a context, hence the long quote.

  2. Oh, I didn’t know The limner had been published in a collection. I read (and reviewed) it a couple of years ago when it was published in The New Yorker. I didn’t know what limner was either! Barnes is one of those writers I want to read more.

  3. Pingback: The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes | Postcards from Asia

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