It feels as though the book world has gone slightly barmy for Barnes at the moment. His new novella The Sense of an Ending has been longlisted for the Booker, and its publication coincides with that of the paperback of his previous book, Pulse, a collection of short stories. His name seems to be more-or-less in lights in many bookshop windows.
I first came across Julian Barnes when we studied Metroland at school. I loved Metroland, perhaps because it was one of the first books – that wasn’t Shakespeare – which we spent a considerable amount of time studying. Here was a book that one could go and buy in a bookshop to read for pleasure, on holiday, or – best of all, given the subject of the book – on the tube. It wasn’t a ‘classic’, or by someone intimidatingly famous, or even particularly long. Yet it was deemed worthy of a whole term’s scrutiny. Most of all, I loved the thought that I was studying a book that many grown-ups – my parents included – hadn’t even heard of.
Part of the syllabus insisted that our approach to the work included an appreciation of the academic criticism surrounding it. This stumped my teacher, who couldn’t find anything in the school library, which was full to bursting with works on older, more illustrious names like Donne, DH Lawrence, and Shakespeare. I remember his telling us, one sunny afternoon when we were all sitting at our desks, vaguely trying to outcool each other, that he’d got a bus to the British Library, where he’d found a single book of criticism on Barnes, and, with rather a theatrical flourish, he presented us with a photocopied chapter on Metroland.
I know isn’t a remotely cool thing to say – of course I didn’t say anything then, just raised an eyebrow while staring at the graffiti on my desk – but it felt kind of cutting-edge. In the whole world, there existed only one chapter about Metroland. We were the pioneers, writing our own critiques on a clean slate. I suppose it was a bit like when I studied post-colonial literature at university and all the essays I read had been written within the past five years, rather than having to trawl through everything from the sixties and beyond which seemed to engulf most other areas.
So I’ve retained a deep affection for Julian Barnes. I remember some of us, after finishing with Metroland, read some more of his books, which we’d casually drop into conversation.
‘Love etc.’ I remember one boy, on whom I might have had a bit of a crush, telling me, when I tentatively asked him what he was reading, a few weeks later.
Of course it was enough to make me turn puce. He just said LOVE, I thought, again and again. I wondered if it was some kind of code, though knew, with a sharp tang of reality as his girlfriend came over to join us, that that was unlikely.
I did, however, feel immensely proud when he asked what I was reading and I could reply, equally nonchalantly, with one of Barnes’ other works, Staring at the Sun.
But it’s always been Metroland for which I’ve had particular affection. The book – Barnes’s first novel – is about a middle-aged man recollecting his school days, his close group of friends, their pretentious faux-intellectual habits – silly things such as practising being flâneurs. I suppose the older I get (sigh), the more I think of Metroland and empathise with that feeling of nostalgia. Although when I was at school it was faux-street rather than faux-intellectual habits we cultivated, such as dancing to garage music and using words like ‘chirpse, bare, lean’. Nostalgia and embarrassment.
I suppose what I’m trying to say is that while it might have been rather a long time since I last read something by Julian Barnes, that gap is diminished in my head because I’ve thought about Metroland rather a lot in the meantime. I even reread it five years or so ago.
Now, reading The Sense of an Ending, I can’t get over how similar it is to Metroland. It is a vessel once again for remembering schooldays, pretentious attempts at intellectualism, incredibly close friendships, girlfriends and a peripheral, perennial preoccupation with death. I am very much enjoying it. And I agree with Justin Cartwright’s review in the Observer that compared it rather favourably to Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach. Perhaps what Barnes has achieved in the twenty odd years between the two books is a honing of his writing, a precision, an efficiency which means that 200 pages can shrink to 150, and a resulting immediacy that hooks people from the start.
For the sad thing is, whenever I recommend Metroland to bookshop customers – occasionally putting a small hopeful pile of it on our table of favourites, or suggesting it as a good novel about London, or coming-of-age, or settling-down – people never buy it. They read the back or the first page, or listen to my enthusiastic description about flâneurs and then put the book down again. I suppose they didn’t first come across it at a vulnerable impressionable age.
But at least they are all buying The Sense of an Ending. And perhaps, because it really is very similar indeed to Metroland, I can feel a little warm glow of smugness and, very occasionally – when no-one’s listening -whisper to myself, I told you so.