In all of his works Julian Barnes has pursued several ideas: Human beings question, even though there can be no absolute answers; humanity pursues its obsessions, with the pursuit often resulting in failure. His novels have at the same time evolved in form and approach—the earliest are more traditional and conventional; the later works are more experimental. Barnes’s wit, irony, andsatire, his use of history, literary criticism, myth, and fable, his melding of imagination and intellect, and his continuing risk in exploring new forms and methods make him one of the most significant English novelists of his generation.
Barnes’s first novel, Metroland, is orthodox in technique and approach; divided into three parts, it is a variation on the traditional bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel. In part 1, the narrator, Christopher Lloyd, and his close friend, Toni, grow up in 1963 in a north London suburb on the Metropolitan rail line (thus the title), pursuing the perennial adolescent dream of rebellion against parents, school, the middle class, and the establishment in general. Convinced of the superiority of French culture and consciously seeking answers to what they believe to be the larger questions of life, they choose to cultivate art, literature, and music in order to astound what they see as the bourgeoisie and its petty concerns.
Part 2, five years later, finds Christopher a student in Paris, the epitome of artistic bohemianism, particularly when compared to his life in Metroland. It is 1968, and French students are demonstrating and rioting in the streets for social and political causes. None of this touches Christopher; he is more concerned about his personal self-discovery than about changing or challenging the wider world.
Nine years later, in part 3, set in 1977, Christopher is back in Metroland, married to Marion, an Englishwoman of his own class, with a child, a mortgaged suburban house, and a nine-to-five job. Toni, still a rebel, chides Christopher for selling out to the enemy. Ironically, however, Christopher is content with life in Metroland. He consciously examines and questions his present circumstances but accepts their rewards and satisfactions.
Questioning and irony are continuing themes in all of Barnes’s novels, as is the absence of significant character development except for the leading figure. Toni, Christopher’s French girlfriend Annick, and Marion, his English wife, are not much more than supporting figures. Relationships are explored through Christopher’s narration alone, and Christopher finds himself, his questions, and his life of most concern and interest to him.
Before She Met Me
Before She Met Me is also a story of an individual’s attempt to relate to and understand his personal world. Graham Hendrick, a forty-year-old professor of history, has recently remarried. Now beginning a new life, happy with Ann, his new wife, and outwardly contented, both personally and professionally, Hendrick seems to be an older variation of Christopher and his self-satisfied middle-class existence. As in his first novel, Barnes includes a bohemian writer, Jack Lupton, as a foil for Hendrick’s respectable conformity.
Before they were married, Ann acted in several minor films, and after viewing one of them, Hendrick, the historian, begins to search out his wife’s past. At first his quest seems based on simple curiosity; soon, however, Ann’s history begins to take over Hendrick’s present life. Losing his professional objectivity as a historian, succumbing to jealousy, compulsively immersing himself in Ann’s past, blurring the distinction between the real Ann and her image on the screen, Hendrick becomes completely obsessed. Seeing the present as a world without causes, Hendrick finds his crusade in the past, and that crusade is no longer public but private. Bordering on the...
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