Wednesday, June 18, 2014

the last book I read

Metroland by Julian Barnes.

Chris and Toni are a couple of 16-year-old schoolboys in suburban early-1960s London. In addition to the usual teenage pursuits of malodorous spottiness and relentless wanking they also cultivate some slightly more cerebral ones, mainly scoffing at the stupidity of their school contemporaries, despising the bourgeois sterility of their parents' lives and fantasising about heading off to France and being bohemian poetic types, France being the centre of all that is arty and revolutionary as well as containing lots of knowing Gauloise-toting French girls who are gagging for it.

We then jump forward to 1968, and Chris has realised at least part of his fantasy by being in Paris, on the flimsy pretext of writing a thesis about French theatre. He's soon enthusiastically pursuing the other half of the Paris fantasy as well, by meeting sultry French girl Annick and persuading her to relieve him of his virginity. So bound up is he with cashing in on the sex thing at every possible opportunity that the seminal events of May 1968 rather pass him by, something he's slightly embarrassed about in hindsight, particularly since Toni reminds him about it constantly.

The last part of the novel happens in 1977 - Chris has settled into his own version of suburban sterility and tedium, or so Toni would have him believe anyway. Married to Marion, the clever, down-to-earth English girl he met towards the end of his time in Paris, father to a young daughter and occupant of a steady job and a nice house, Chris certainly seems to have embraced the whole bourgeois middle-class thing with a vengeance. So why is he so happy? And is Toni really as scornful of Chris' lifestyle as he purports to be, or is he just jealous?

This was Julian Barnes' first novel, published in 1980, and follows many of the standard rules for first novels: most importantly, write about what you know. The bits describing Chris' childhood are supposedly reasonably close to being autobiographical - Barnes certainly did grow up in suburban north-west London, and the close ties with France are real, Barnes being if anything more celebrated as a novelist in France than he is in Britain.

It's pretty short (176 pages in my Picador edition) and less experimental than some of Barnes' later stuff, Flaubert's Parrot and A History of the World in 10½ Chapters in particular. It's very good on the business of how bright, slightly smug teenage boys act (and I know, because I used to be one), and raises some interesting questions about how youthful idealism mutates into a strong desire to do nothing more than just hang out with your wife and kids. It's fairly slight, though, and as with the rest of Barnes' books one ends up perhaps admiring the cleverness of it rather than really engaging with the characters. I would recommend the pair of love triangle books Talking It Over and Love, Etc. and the darker, slightly Ian McEwan-esque Before She Met Me. Barnes won the Booker Prize in 2011 for The Sense Of An Ending, having been nominated three times before - I think there may be just a hint of a lifetime achievement award being handed out there, just as for some other past recipients.

Metroland won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1981, as did A Good Man In Africa. The usual list can be found there. It was also made into a film - starring Christian Bale and Emily Watson among others - in 1997.

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