Staring at the Sun
Julian Barnes’s third novel, Flaubert’s Parrot, first published in England in 1984, was immediately hailed as that most paradoxical of literary forms, a contemporary classic. Odder still, perhaps, is the fact that this relatively short, decidedly low-key book actually deserves the praise it has received, praise that reviewers and selection committees for various literary prizes have regularly and promiscuously bestowed on far too many recent novels. The problem that the novel’s narrator and somewhat self-effacing hero, Geoffrey Braithwaite, faces is how to seize the past. The question recurs throughout the novel and, in its recurrence, makes clear the narrator’s, and the reader’s, dilemma without ever attempting to put forth any one simple solution, for the past that Braithwaite attempts to capture in words is not so much distant and obscure as it is multiple and problematic. His ostensible subject is his literary hero, Gustave Flaubert, or more narrowly, Braith-waite’s research into the “real” parrot upon which Flaubert modeled the fictive one in his story “A Simple Heart.” The smallness of his subject suggests the smallness of the man, a medical doctor-turned-small-time literary sleuth who becomes in the process the master’s mime: Flaubert’s parrot. Yet even as he fritters away his time on the silliest of literary trivia, as if in parody (parrotry) of scholarly research, his story deepens and darkens, shedding a bright but indirect light on the stories Braithwaite longs to tell but chooses not to: about himself, and about his wife’s suicide, in which he appears to have played a double part (the failed husband, the doctor who pulls the plug on her life-support machine). “Mystification is simple,” Braithwaite writes; “clarity is the hardest thing of all.” It is not purposely to mystify his reader that Braithwaite chooses to tell his story as he does, but to clarify as best he can the darkness in his own life.
Barnes’s fourth novel, Staring at the Sun, is similarly deceptive and similarly complex; the simplicity of its style and characters serve at once to mask and to clarify the depth of the author’s art and vision. Looking back over the ninety or so years of her life, Jean Serjeant finds herself wrestling with Braithwaite’s dilemma (without, however, his degree of self-consciousness): how to seize the past, meaning not merely the incidents, but the import as well. The first of her recollections, which are imagined as a series of magic-lantern slides, concerns her Uncle Leslie’s gift of hyacinths, a gift that proves to be a joke, the sprouts she peeks at being nothing more than four purple golf tees embedded in soil and covered by paper. The incident suggests the disillusionment that comes with growing up—a disillusionment that Jean will experience but one to which she will not succumb, choosing to accept instead what these flowers traditionally symbolize: prudence, peace of mind, heavenly aspiration.
The incident serves another purpose as well, for the reader if not for Jean, and that is to recall the hyacinth-girl passage in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922): “. . . I could not/ Speak, and my eyes failed. I was neither/ Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,/ Looking into the heart of light, the silence.” There are significant parallels between Jean and the hyacinth girl, but what is most important is this difference: Jean’s recollections are not a matter of shoring her fragments against the ruin, as in Eliot’s poem, but instead part of her ongoing effort to clarify what she already but only dimly feels, turning the events of her ordinary, clearly unadventurous, and largely solitary life into moments of light and truth. The narrow range of her life as a grocer’s daughter growing up in an unnamed and featureless part of England masks the inquiring expansiveness of her mind, a mind that is inquisitive rather than intellectual, sincere rather than ironic. As she herself admits, she may not know much but she does know this much at least, that she does not “know the first thing.” The way in which she goes about knowing her world and herself is instructive. It involves the use of what American novelist Walker Percy has termed “metaphor as mistake,” a process by which the unknown is familiarized by subconsciously turning it into a metaphor which permits the individual to understand the unfamiliar by associating, or rather confusing, it with something already understood and familiar. To mention but one example of this in Staring at the Sun: Prior to her marriage, Jean attempts to overcome her complete ignorance of sex by reading a book on the subject, one whose very language only serves to darken further her already-dim ideas.Maladjustment of the organs . . . and congestion of the womb. Congestion—she thought of men coming to unblock the drains, and shuddered. Barren, that was the proper word, the biblical word. Barren. And barrenness. Barrenness made her think of the Gobi desert, which made her think of Uncle Leslie. Don’t let the club head drop or there’ll be more sand flying than on a windy day in the Gobi desert. She saw a golfer in a bunker, hacking, hacking, hacking with his club, and the ball never coming out.
Insofar as Jean’s associations involve exaggerations and mistakes, they are amusing, but within the humor lurks a certain truth that evidences itself more dearly as the comedy slides into the images of...
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