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What Makes the World Go Round

LOVE, ETC. A Novel By Julian Barnes; Alfred A. Knopf: 224 pp., $24

February 11, 2001|JONATHAN LEVI | Jonathan Levi is a contributing writer to Book Review

What do we talk about when we talk about love? According to Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Americans talk about guilt, the French about menages a trois and the English about hats. But that was 40 years ago, when trans-Atlantic romance was for the wealthy few and our loves and our betrayals were relatively homogeneous. In those days, we thought the subject worn out, sung to death by John Lennon in a BBC studio, or buried to the neck like actors in a Beckett "Play" who talk about love and talk about love until the words become abstract sounds and the audience shrugs on its overcoats and leaves.

But writers can no more stop talking about love than can buried actors. Ten years ago, Julian Barnes published "Talking It Over," a novel of confessions by a woman and the two men she has married (consecutively, of course). Because Barnes is not only a tremendous writer but a man of the world, "Talking It Over" pulsed with the kind of Franco-American Englishness one finds in most of the restaurants of Notting Hill (and in Juliette Binoche's recent, splendid performance of Harold Pinter's own menage a trois "Betrayal"), but that would have left Nichols and May speechless back in the '60s.

"Talking It Over" clearly left Barnes and his trio with plenty of speech in reserve. Ten years later we find them, still confessing, still ruminating over the aspects of love that led Oliver to fall in love and marry Gillian, the wife of his best friend Stuart. Ten years later in "Love, etc.", we find that Gillian has become--in her own words--"a normal mother, that's to say in the night I have terrible fears. And in the daytime too. Sophie and Marie have only got to behave like the normal, lively girls they are--they've only got to behave as if they trusted the world, as if the world was going to be nice to them, they've only got to leave the house with that optimism on their faces--for my stomach to get tight with fear."

Oliver, so full of spit and spunk a decade ago, is still a man of parts. A would-be artist and writer of screenplays--"One was about Picasso," Gillian says, "Franco and Pablo Casals taking part in a pelota competition just before the Spanish Civil War"--the "would-be" is less attractive 10 years later, and every mot a bon. (On non-penetrative sex: "Waiter, I'll have the three-course dinner, please. An amuse-gueule, a palate-cleansing sorbet, and a decaf espresso.")

And then there is Stuart, the betrayed husband and friend. After an escape to America, where he displayed an aptitude for marketing organic produce while discovering that other women were inferior to the original fruit, Stuart has returned to England determined (depending on whether one takes the English, American or Gallic point of view) to set things right, reclaim his love, or wreak a terrible vengeance.

Taking turns--and occasionally waiting for minor characters (Gillian's French mother, her gamine assistant, Stuart's American ex-wife) to speak their minor pieces--the trio discuss curry and condoms and sofa legs and tell their Rashomonotonic stories. And, of course, they talk about love.

Love is sex and lack thereof. Love is love for mothers and absent fathers, cats, ancient landladies, money and monkey puzzle trees. There is the love that involves dragging people around on floors the way Raymond Carver's characters do when they talk about love. For Gillian, love is true love. For Stuart, love is first love. And for Oliver, as Stuart tells it, love is "a theory he called Love, etc.: in other words, the world divides into people for whom love is everything and rest of life is a mere 'etc', and people who don't value love enough and find the most exciting part of life is the 'etc'. It was the sort of line he was peddling when he stole my wife and I suspected it was bollocks at the time, and now I know it's absolute bollocks not to mention boastful bollocks."

It's the sort of line that keeps Oliver going, sort of--a glib, blinkered, stiff-upper lipped sneer that shores Oliver against the ravages of depression, almost. But it is these lines, these words, and most of all the faith that language and talking will save our love and our lives from the inevitable, that make us value Barnes and Carver and Beckett as three wise philosophers on matters of the heart. It is little surprise that Barnes gives the last word, the final prognostication, to a Frenchwoman, Gillian's mother: "Something will happen. Or nothing. And then, one after the other, over a long period of time, we'll all die. You may die first, of course. So as for me, I will wait. For something to happen. Or for nothing to happen." Oh, happy days!

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