I recently learnt a new term. Ichigo Ichie. We must treasure every moment as we can never replicate the moment in exactly the same way. Ichigo Ichie is a Japanese idiom (yojijukugo) that describes a cultural concept of treasuring each moment as what we experience at any given moment will not repeat. The nature of a moment is unrepeatable. This is such a valuable concept. It has some similar connotation to Carpe Diem and yet it is not quite the same.
Since I first read The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, I have purchased most of the books written by the prolific author and read several of them. I find his prose witty and his observations insightful.
In Talking It Over, every character narrates the story through his or her perspectives. It is about Oliver Russell, the never do well flamboyant friend of Stuart Hughes, his very old friend since school days. It is a love triangle story about how Oliver steals Stuart’s wife, Gillian Wyatt. Oliver falls in love with Gillian on the day she marries his good friend, Stuart. From their monologues, you get to know that Stuart is a young banker who is careful with his finances and not a confident person. Oliver is pedantic and yet a wilder type, an unfulfilled soul who winds up teaching at Shakespeare School of English and even manages to get himself sacked from the institution. Stuart and Oliver have struck an unlikely friendship throughout the years. Gillian is an art restorer and a former social worker.
Through the different accounts by Stuart, Gillian and Oliver and several minor characters,the story is told.
‘Stuart Everything starts here. That’s what I keep repeating to myself. Everything starts here. I was only average at school. I was never encouraged to think that I should aim for university. I did a correspondence course in economics and commercial law, then got accepted by the Bank as a general trainee. I work in the foreign exchange department. I’d better not mention the Bank’s name, just in case they don’t like it. But you’ll have heard of them. They’ve made it fairly clear to me that I’ll never be a high-flier, but every company needs some people who aren’t high-fliers, and that’s all right by me. My parents were the type of parents who always seemed faintly disappointed by whatever it was you did, as if you were constantly letting them down in small ways.
Oliver I have to be near her, do you understand? I have to win her, I have to earn her, but first I have to be near her.
Gillian I love Stuart. Now I love Oliver. Everyone got hurt. Of course I feel guilty. What would you have done? ‘
‘Stuart One of the first things people tell you about money is that it’s an illusion. It’s notional. If you give someone a dollar bill it’s not ‘worth’ a dollar – it’s ‘worth’ a small piece of paper and a small amount of printer’s ink – but everyone agrees, everyone subscribes to the illusion that it’s worth a dollar, and therefore it is. All the money in the world only means what it does because people subscribe to the same illusion about it. Why gold, why platinum? Because everyone agrees to place this value upon them. And so on.
You can probably see where I’m leading. The other world illusion, the other thing that exists simply because everyone agrees to place a certain value on it, is love. Now you may call me a jaundiced observer, but that’s my conclusion. And I’ve just been pretty close up to it. I’ve had my nose rubbed in love, thank you very much. I’ve put my nose as close against love as I put my nose to the screen when I’m talking it over with money. And it seems to me there are parallels to be drawn. ‘
Before reading Talking it Over, I read Love,etc, a sequel to Talking it Over. Love, etc is set ten years later and was written some ten years after Talking it Over.
In Love, etc, Julian Barnes revisits Stuart, Gillian and Oliver.
Here are snippets from Love, etc.
‘Stuart I’m not sure I’m going to be very good at this. I might get things in the wrong order. You’re going to have to bear with me. But I think it’s best you hear my story first.
Oliver and I were at school together. We were best friends. Then I worked for a clearing bank. He was teaching English as a foreign language. Gillian and I met. She was a picture restorer. Well she still is. We met, we fell in love, we married. I made the mistake of thinking that was the end of the story, when it was only the beginning. I suppose it’s a mistake lots of people make. We’ve seen too many films, read too many books. believed our parents too much. All this was about ten years ago, when we were in our early thirties. Now we’re ….no, I can see you can work that out for yourself.
Oliver stole her off me. He wanted my life so he took it. He made Gill fall in love with him . How ? I don’t want to know. I don’t think I ever want to know that.’
In Love, etc, we know that after Stuart and Gillian were divorced, he went to America, subsequently remarried but divorced again five years later. He was first with the bank in Washington, then after a year or two, he opened a restaurant with a friend. He liked food but did not stick long with restaurant business. He is enterprising and has a good nose about market trends, he now has a successful organic food business. He is the one who first makes contact with Oliver and Gillian. He looks them up in the phone book. Despite the divorce, Stuart has kept in touch with Gillian’s mother, Mme Wyatt. She is French.
‘ Mme Wyatt Marriage comes after love as smoke comes after fire.’ You remember? Chamfort. Was he saying only that marriage is the inescapable consequence of love, that we cannot have one without the other? A piece of wisdom that is not worth writing down, no ? So he is inviting us to look at the comparison more exactly. He is saying, perhaps, that love is dramatic and hot and burning and noisy, while marriage is like a warm fog which stings yours eyes and makes it impossible for you to see. He is saying perhaps also that marriage is something blown about by the wind – that love is fierce and burns the ground it stands on, while marriage is a more incoherent condition which can be altered and dissipated by the lightest breeze. ‘
Gillian’s father abandoned his family when she was thirteen. He ran off with one of his students. Mme Wyatt is wise and content with her life. She muses,” …I want a book written with a good style that does not have an unhappy ending. I want politeness and short conversations with friends for who I have respect. But in general I want things for others- for my daughter, for my granddaughters. I want the world to be not so menacing for them than it has been to me and the people I have known during my life. More and more, I want less and less. You see, I have only soft feelings.’
In both Talking it Over and Love,etc, the author has used the same technique of allowing each character to speak directly to the reader, giving his or her own version of the story. When we place these accounts together, they give a fair picture of what happens. You know it is fiction yet it is credible and it is dark and complicated when these characters are taken over by what and how they think about contemporary love and betrayal.
In his memoir Nothing to be Frightened of , Julian Barnes talks about death and mortality after having witnessed his parents’ decline as they advanced to their old age and eventually passing.
Here are some of the excerpts that strike a chord with me.
‘A question, and a paradox. Our history has seen the gradual if bumpy rise of individualism: from the animal herd, from the slave society, from the mass of uneducated units bossed by priest and king, to looser groups in which the individual has greater rights and freedoms-the right to pursue happiness, private thought, self- fulfillment, self- indulgence. At the same time, as we throw off the rules of priest and king, as science helps us understand the truer terms and conditions on which we live, as our individualism expresses itself in grosser and more selfish ways ( what is freedom for if not for that?) , we also discover that this individuality, or illusion of individuality, is less than we imagined. We discover, to our surprise, that as Dawkins memorably puts it, we are “ survival machines-robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.” The paradox is that individualism-the triumph of free- thinking artists and scientists-has led us to a state of self-awareness in which we can now view ourselves as units of genetic obedience. My adolescent notion of self-construction-that vaguely,Englishly,existentialist ego-hope of autonomy-could not have been further from the truth….’
‘That is the paradox; here is the question.We grow up; we trade in our old sense of wonder for a new one- wonder at the blind and fortuitous process which has blindly and fortuitously produced us; we don’t feel depressed by this, as some might, but “elated” as Dawkins himself is; we enjoy the things which Dawkins lists as making life worth living- music, poetry, sex, love(science)–while perhaps practicing the humorous resignation advocated by Somerset Maugham. We do all this, and do we get any better at dying? …’
Nothing To Be Frightened of is peppered with humour even on serious subjects such as faith, religious beliefs and death as Julian Barnes takes us masterfully through the insights of various writers and his musings.
‘If I called myself an atheist at twenty, and an agnostic at fifty and sixty, it isn’t because I have acquired more knowledge in the meantime; just more awareness of ignorance. How can we be sure that we know enough to know? As twenty-first century neo-Darwinian materialists, convinced that the meaning and mechanism of life have only been fully clear since the year 1859, we hold ourselves categorically wiser than those credulous knee-benders who, a speck of time away, believe in divine purpose, an ordered world, resurrection and a Last Judgement. But although we are more informed, we are no more evolved, and certainly no more intelligent than them. What convinces us that our knowledge is so final?‘
—–Nothing To Be Frightened of, Julian Barnes @page 23-24
As we are consumed with the menace of the pandemic, this may be a good time to read Julian Barnes‘s musings in Nothing to be Frightened of.
Life is work in progress so are we. As we grow up and throughout the years, there are always difficult situations that are thrown at us and years later, we probably end up in a place where we look back and wonder,” What was all that about ?”. I feel that whatever circumstances we are confronted with and whatever decisions or indecisions we may have made at the time, they are all necessary so we can be in a better place from where we once were. In the meantime, we have to be present at every moment and make the best of where we are.