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A many splintered thing

Author Julian Barnes sings songs of 'Love, etc.'

Julian Barnes
The concept of love fascinates author Julian Barnes. "It's the great drama, the great unknowable of most of our lives," he says  

In this story:

Unreliable narratives

It's 'only love'

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(CNN) -- The sequel is not uncommon in the world of literature. John Updike examined the life of Rabbit Angstrom over the course of four books. Joseph Heller ran into "Catch-22"'s Yossarian again in "Closing Time." Even Scarlett O'Hara made a repeat appearance, albeit one created by another author, in "Scarlett."

But, more often, when a book is finished, it's over. The characters are left in whatever position the writer placed them and it's on to the next subject. If you're Julian Barnes, writer of such wide-ranging novels as "Flaubert's Parrot" (1984), "A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters" (1990) and "England, England," (1998), that's quite all right, thank you very much.

Certainly, there didn't seem to be much need to continue his 1991 novel, "Talking It Over." The story of Stuart, Gillian, and Oliver -- three friends who become immersed in a love triangle -- ended with Gillian, who left the quiet Stuart for the glib Oliver, getting in a violent fight with her new husband as her old one secretly watched from a distance. Oliver drives off in fright, Stuart stands paralyzed with indecision, and Gillian is left in the middle of the street, clutching her baby, pressing a handkerchief to a wound on her face. Three characters in search of love, finding out it's much more difficult than they'd bargained for.

What, then, prompted Barnes to write a sequel -- the recently published "Love, etc." (Knopf)?

Well, he admits, it's partly because the public demanded it.

"'Talking It Over' is the only one of my books people asked me what happened next," says Barnes, 55, in a recent phone interview from Boston. "And they disagreed about what happened when the book concluded."

Unreliable narratives

Eventually, Barnes also started wondering about the "Talking It Over" characters himself. It had been 10 years. What had happened to the trio?

Well, Stuart has remade himself as a successful businessman in America and is back in Britain. He's still in love with Gillian, and determinedly insinuates himself into Oliver and Gillian's now-mundane marriage -- with regretful results.

As he did in "Talking It Over," Barnes tells the story from each character's first-person point of view, as if the reader were a friend sitting at a bar. The changing perspectives provide the ultimate in the "unreliable narrator" form; the reader is never quite sure whose version of the story to believe.

"That form is very freeing," Barnes says. "It's a great relief for the novelist not to have to be there in the way a third-person narrator implies. If you get rid of all that -- that judging entity -- you just leave the character alone with the reader."

What wasn't so freeing, he adds, was getting inside the heads of so many different personalities. Oliver is an erudite, somewhat obnoxious writer who speaks in facile, quick-witted phrases. Stuart is more plodding and matter-of-fact, and Gillian, an art restorer, talks in a resigned, fated tone. Then there are the supporting characters, such as Stuart's American ex-wife and Gillian's French-born mother, who are allowed their few minutes on the book's stage as well.

"Oliver was the easiest to write," says Barnes. "It's always the easiest to write the potentially wicked character. But it produces the danger of Oliver running away with the book ... (you want to) balance his skill and inventiveness against his dislikability."


Moreover, as the writer, he had to have some sympathy for him, Barnes adds: "You have to identify with even the smaller characters."

It's 'only love'

One thing "Love, etc." is not about, says Barnes, is himself. "Very little of my own love life comes up in this book," says the writer, who is married to agent Pat Kavanaugh.

But the concept of love continues to fascinate Barnes. He spent a very personal chapter, "Parenthesis," pondering the subject in "History of the World." Several of his other books deal with the rich subject in a thoughtful, compassionate manner. Love is obviously a topic close to Barnes' heart.

"It's the great drama, the great unknowable of most of our lives," Barnes explains. "We don't all paddle up the Amazon in a canoe and get shot at, but we do the equivalent of that (in our relationships)."

In the book, the characters express their feelings about love succinctly. For the once-smitten Stuart, "First love is the only love." For the stalwart Gillian, "True love is the only love." And for the insecure Oliver, "As much love as possible is the only love." The title "Love, etc." comes from a theory of Oliver's: The world can be divided into two groups -- those for which love is all that matters, and those for which it's the "etc." that counts.

Barnes leaves little doubt which side he's on, and why.

"The human race can probably survive without love," he says. "But love is what makes the self."

Sounds like a topic worth a sequel.

Alfred A. Knopf
The Salon interview: Julian Barnes

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