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For the 'Love' of Intimacy and Good Manners

English author Julian Barnes let's his characters do all the talking, but even he can't resist gossiping about them.

March 12, 2001|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Fiction," says Julian Barnes, "is as intimate as sex." Certainly his new novel, "Love, etc.," pushes the relationship between the reader and the characters to an intimate point. Even authors Milan Kundera and Vladimir Nabokov, master manipulators, do not leave their readers talking about their characters as if they were people one knows.

In "Love, etc.," the characters ask us questions. They answer questions we haven't asked, out loud, anyway. The characters change, the way people do (or do they?). They lie to us, giving us different versions of the same event. They lie to each other. They lie to Barnes.

The author likes a good gossip session about his characters as much as the next reader but feels, on this rainy L.A. afternoon, that he is not quite up to par. Every time Barnes comes to L.A., in fact, he gets sick. Let's not take it personally. Here's where steely British resolve, forbearance and good manners come in. Ask yourself: Could I do a book tour, involving interviews and readings, if I felt fluish, feverish and dizzy? He does, and with aplomb, turning completely ashen only when asked the personal questions he is famous for averting. He worries that his defenses might be down.

"Love, etc." takes up the lives of characters he introduced in a 1991 novel, "Talking It Over," and as before, they address the reader directly. Gillian, an art restorer, was once married to Stuart, a banker. Gillian left Stuart for Oliver, writer of screenplays, talker, incurable romantic. At the end of "Talking It Over," we left Stuart, Gillian and Oliver in a French village. Gillian was bleeding where Oliver had hit her. Stuart was watching from a window nearby.

"After I wrote 'Talking It Over,' " says Barnes, "a friend wrote me a note. At the bottom he mentioned that I most resembled Stuart, trying to be Oliver. I certainly don't want to be identified as Stuart wanting to be Oliver." Stuart, who moves to America after the scene in the French village, comes home for "Love, etc." fit, well-dressed and wealthy. He works his way back into Gillian and Oliver's life in a friendly, helpful and menacingly predatory way. He gives Oliver a job in his restaurant and green-grocer business. His manners are impeccable. Oliver, voluble, fragile, is perhaps our best friend and guide in the book.

"The story of our life," Oliver says close to the end of this book, "is never an autobiography, always a novel." Therefore, a reader might say, trodding off the page, this is a novel about Barnes. Barnes, the guileless reader might say, has something he wants to tell us about love.

No, he says, he does not. "Writers should not give advice," he insists. "We present the conundrum." A reader could, however, if lucky enough to meet Barnes, try bouncing some conundrums back into his court.

For example: "All relationships are about power," Oliver says toward the end of "Love, etc."

"This is one aspect of relationships that has been often denied," Barnes says. A sip of mint tea. "Usually, it is arranged that A does this and B does that, in terms of practical things. There's agreement and, therefore, some equality. But there are always dangerous areas of vacuum, demilitarized zones, where someone has to make a decision and declines, where one person has power and the other doesn't."

How about, there can be "no trust without betrayal," something the love-cynic Stuart says early on. "That's true, isn't it," says Barnes. "You can't, after all, betray someone if they haven't trusted you. Remember, he says, rising to Stuart's defense. "He says that after being deeply trashed."

Author With a Prized Past

Barnes, 54, has an almost perfectly proportioned face, completely oval, broad between the eyes, a straight nose that cuts the semicircle smile exactly in half. Cheekbones that stop the smile. Hair down in his eyes, which he sweeps back every 20 minutes. He wears a gentle gray wool jacket, a gray shirt, a black vest and black shoes that have such sturdy soles you think he might walk up the sides of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, where we've met. They are a highly evolved form of the genus: British Walking Shoe.

"Flaubert's Parrot" (1984), about a retired English doctor and his obsession with Gustave Flaubert, is perhaps Barnes' most widely read novel. "Metroland" (1980) was his first, for which he won the Somerset Maughman Prize in 1980, followed by a Booker nomination in 1984 for "Flaubert's Parrot," a Prix Medecis for "A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters" in 1990 and the 1992 Prix Femina for "Talking It Over," to name a few. He has also written several mysteries under the pseudonym Dan Kavanagh but says he no longer finds that pursuit "economical."

After "10 1/2 Chapters," Barnes was often referred to as love's anatomist, a veritable priest of love. Perhaps he will, in his weakened condition, tell us something about it.

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