Throwback Thursday – Parenthesis by Julian Barnes

I’ve talked about Barnes before on the blog, and he feels like a good way to return to the throwbacks. I was introduced to his writing in my contemporary British Lit class. Parenthesis is the “half” chapter in A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters. It’s given no chapter number and exists near the back of the book.

Published back in 1990, the book is full of short reinterpretations of historic stories and artwork. The very first story is about Noah, his ark, his alcoholism, and the worm that stowed away for the journey. It’s a humorous start to a book that becomes quite bleak. It’s been a long time since I’ve read the book in its entirety. The stories after Noah’s Ark were good, but they all kind of melded together. Parenthesis stands out like this beacon. The narrator speaks directly to the reader. No longer are we looking at the world through this grand, global perspective. Now we’re seeing how History is everything, down to these tiny, all-encompassing interactions. This story lives in my brain.

It’s been years since I first read it, but it’s still there. I will just go to the bookcase, pick it up, flip to a random page in Parenthesis and read a paragraph or two. Sometimes, I don’t even plan to do it. Those sentences will always make me feel… more. I don’t know exactly how to put it into words, but this story has weight. The best way is just to show you.

“I love you.” For a start, we’d better put these words on a high shelf; in a square box behind glass which we have to break with our elbow; in a bank. We shouldn’t leave them lying around the house like a tube of vitamin C. If the words come too easily to hand, we’ll use them without thought; we won’t be able to resist. Oh, we say we won’t, but we will. We’ll get drunk, or lonely, or – likeliest of all – plain damn hopeful, and there are the words gone, used up, grubbied. We think we might be in love and we’re trying out the words to see if they’re appropriate? How can we know what we think till we hear what we say? Come off it; that won’t wash. These are grand words; we must make sure we deserve them. Listen to them again: “I love you.”

I am not a reader of grand romance. I don’t like silly, soul mate tropes. But this is the most romantic things I’ve ever read. Love is hard. It is something you have to work at. You shouldn’t throw it around. You can’t force it. You have to recognize it in its truth and its falsehoods. At one point, Barnes compares it to a garage door opener in the suburbs. It looks like it should work on any of them, but there’s only one that will respond. I don’t have the book on hand, and I can’t find that quote online, but the analogy is one I remember.

This story makes me happy. The entire book is worth reading. But Parenthesis is the high point. How have we gotten where we are? Is humanity destined for pain? Is that what we’re made for? Is it worth all the pain?

I will always have this book in my collection. I will always gravitate back to it. It might be months or years between visits, but it will always have a place.


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