Julian Barnes "Metroland" (Vintage)
This is Barnes’ first novel, published in 1980 when he was 34 years old. It is told from the perspective of Christopher Lloyd, aged 15-16, living in Metroland and going to school with his best friend Toni, the two boys thinking themselves very smart in with their French language, their search for the meaning of art and life, their intellectual, superior ways with which they
score points as they can from the unsuspecting…basically all the hubris of youth unblemished and untested in life and emotions…plus their insecurities vis-à-vis the opposite sex and their conjectures and fantasies about sex. Chris goes to Paris when he is 20 to study, loses his virginity, discovers sex, discovers the value of frank and open conversation rather than clever circumlocutions, and discovers the tangled web of emotions and trying to decide what is love. He also meets the woman who becomes his wife when they have returned to Metroland and Chris has become what, as a youth, he would have derided: employed with a mortgage and a family and, somewhat to his surprise, happy. Toni has stayed much more bohemian, but one has the sense that he has to because it is his only sense of self-identification; he sneers slightly at Chris’s bourgeois lifestyle and that Chris isn’t interested in extra-marital sex because he loves his wife and is satisfied with her….which leads to an interesting conversation between Chris and Marion, later.
The book is well written and enjoyable in itself: it rings true in the psychology of Chirs and Toni as young and more mature men; it is also interesting for themes that one can see later in Barnes’s writing.
One of those themes, briefly covered in one of the short chapters, is the fear of death….a subject that Barnes explores a much greater length in nothing to be afraid of. In Metroland, Chris’s older brother Nigel is quite dismissive of such fears and Chris decides that Nigel, “either had a less touchy imagination, or he had a firmer, less anguished grasp of the termination of his own existence. “ I think there is an autobiographical touch here because in nothing to be afraid of, Barnes often juxtaposes his ruminations with the more analytical stance of his philosopher brother.
Another theme, explored further in Flaubert’s Parrot and also in Daudet, is the duty of the writer to observe and record, even to the extent of being seen as cold and unfeeling. Context shapes not just mannerisms (Chris finds himself adopting all kinds of French body language), it also affects language and how reality is described or lived. Chris quotes a study of Japanese GI-brides who spoke English at home and in the shops but Japanese among themselves; the group was interviewed twice, in Japanese and in English; with the former they came across as submissive, supportive, aware of the value of tight social cohesion; in English they were independent, frank, and much more outward-looking.
Another thought explored further in Flaubert’s Parrot, is the power and appeal of anticipation as opposed to realization and success or failure, in many things, including sexual relations.What is happiness and how is to be structured and what right do people have to sneer at the happiness of others, however that might be defined? Looking at his life, Chris concludes: “I’d call myself a happy man; if preachy, then out of a sense of modest excitement, not pride. I wonder why happiness is despised nowadays; dismissively confused with comfort or complacency, judged an enemy of the social—even technological—progress. People often refuse to believe it when they see it; or disregard it as something merely lucky, merely genetic: a few drops of this, a dash of that, a couple of synapses unclogged. Not an achievement.”
And finally, on the last page, Chris ruminates that, “there’s no point in trying to thrust false significance on to things.”…by which he means not just physical things but also thoughts, beliefs, ideologies; because in this direction lie distortion and untruths.
As a first novel, this is quite an achievement. He is becoming one of my most read aithors.