This is one of my all time favourite books. I have read it more times than I can count since first finding it in the early 1990s. (I don’t remember exactly when, but I know it was before going to Europe in 1994.) I love so many things about it – the delicious language of Julian Barnes, the brilliant interconnectedness of the stories, the images and meanings that stay with you long after reading, and the way the stories can be both comfortingly familiar and refreshingly new upon re-reading.
My favourite chapters are “Shipwreck”, which describes the wreck of the Medusa (c. 1816) and the subsequent painting of The Raft of the Medusa, and “The Dream”, which describes “new heaven”. “Shipwreck” includes a full colour picture of the famous painting and describes the event and the subsequent artwork. The image and descriptions have stuck with me, making a visit to the Louvre in 1994 mandatory primarily to see the gigantic painting in person, and a subsequent great read (The Wreck of the Medusa) a page-turner.
“The Dream” covers a terrific version of heaven that I hope is real – never have a read such a delicious description of breakfast, and I can only dream of having that same meal one day (or many days).
Other chapters are great as well, but don’t stand alone the way “Shipwreck” and “The Dream” do. The 1/2-chapter, “Parenthesis”, is a treatise on the topic of love; touching on some of the same themes as the others, it does feel like an outlier stylistically, and perhaps would have benefited from being 3/4 of a chapter instead.
Themes of ships, segregation, decay, examination of life, meaning of myths, language barriers, and rebirth are woven together in interesting and intelligent ways throughout the stories, and the marvel of Barnes’ cleverness is that you don’t feel that these themes are obvious or overbearing, more like Easter eggs sprinkled here and there.
If you’ve never read Barnes, this a great place to start (or with The Sense of an Ending, if a novella is more your speed). Regardless, Barnes is brilliant and remains my favourite.
1. a book in which a murder takes place
15. a book with a number in the title
18. a book of short stories (kind of)