Jean Serjeant, the heroine of Julian Barnes's wonderfully provocative novel, seems ordinary, but has an extraordinary disdain for wisdom. And as Barnes--winner of the Man Booker Prize for The Sense of an Ending--follows her from her childhood in the 1920s to her flight into the sun in the year 2021, he confronts readers with the fruits of her relentless curiosity: pilgrimages to China and the Grand Canyon; a catalogue of 1940s sexual euphemisms; and a glimpse of technology in the twenty-first century (when The Absolute Truth can be universally accessed). Elegant, funny and intellectually subversive, Staring at the Sun is Julian Barnes at his most dazzlingly original
Jean leaves Michael, as she said she would, when she is about seven months pregnant, “Pregnancy seemed to nudge her into wider expectations, and her easy capriciousness whispered like a secret breeze that character need not be fixed.” She raises her son Gregory by herself, moving constantly about England from one service job to another, never having contact again with Michael. At the end of the book, Jean is 100 years old and her son is an old man, never married, somewhat reclusive and wrestling with death and the idea of suicide.
Such, in bare bones, is the structure of the novel but, as is usual with Barnes, this is more a novel of ideas and questions than a story or a narrative meant to grip and hold the reader. Barnes deals with a number of his favourite themes: the meaning of identity; fear and acceptance of death and the manner of facing death; the veracity, appeal and meaning of religion and religious beliefs; bravery and how it is manifest; what is the meaning of knowledge and wisdom.
Bravery comes in many forms. It can be internal to the sense of one’s self and one’s own beliefs and behaviours and it can, at the same time, be manifest in some external act that affects others, perhaps even involving sacrifice of life. Is bravery the absence of fear or the overcoming of it? Is it brave to die with courage, even grace? Is it not brave to “carry on believing all your life what you believed at the start of it” instead of just relapsing into what other people believe?
What is a good death? Is it, “…simply this: the best death you could manage in the circumstances, regardless of medical help. Or again, more simply still: a good death was any death not swamped by agony, fear and protest.” Or, perhaps, “…courage in the face of death was only part of it; perhaps faking courage for those who loved you was the greater, higher courage.”
I rather like Barnes’s view that, “Knowledge didn’t really advance, it only seemed to. The serious questions always remained unanswered.” And the view that if one can’t necessarily attain wisdom, one can at least discard, “all stupidity”.
We are so much, and so often, defined by the expectations and the attitudes of others: “You grew old first not in your own eyes, but in other people’s eyes; then, slowly, you agreed with their opinion of you. It wasn’t that you couldn’t walk as far as you used to, it was that other people didn’t expect you to; and if they didn’t, then it needed vain obstinacy to persist.”
Gregory resorts to something called the GPC: General Purposes Computer which is supposed to answer any and all questions concerning facts and life. Barnes published this book in 1987 so the GPC is eerily prescient of our Google/Wikipedia universe and medical computer programs that are even used for psychological assessments and which researchers find some people take very personally as real conversations. An irony is that Gregory doesn’t know that the GPC is actually staffed by people who construct the replies. In any case, Gregory searches the GPC for answers to his fear of death and oblivion and if it is morally permissible to commit suicide which is now allowed and even facilitated in society. Finally, Gregory turns to his 100-year old mother for advice: “Is death absolute? Yes, dear….Is religion nonsense? Yes, dear….Is suicide permissible? No, dear”.
Jean concludes her life with the belief that “religion was piffle; of course death was absolute….Of course we each had a soul, a miraculous core of individuality; it was just that putting ‘immortal’ in front of the word made no sense. It was not a real answer. We had a mortal soul, a destructible soul, and that was perfectly all right.”
The book begins with a description of Tommy Prosser seeing the sun rise twice in the same morning as he flew over the English Channel, diving below the horizon after the first sunrise to see it happen again. The circle is wonderfully closed when Jean, at 100, gets Gregory to arrange a private flight at sundown so she can see the sun set twice. This is the description of the second setting of the sun:
“The fingers of cloud no longer lay between her and the sun. They were face to face. She did not, however, give it any sign of greeting. She did not smile, and she tried very hard not to blink. The sun’s descent seemed quicker this time, a smooth slipping-away. The earth did not greedily chase it, but lay flatly back with its mouth open. The big orange sun settled on the horizon, yielded a quarter of its volume to the accepting earth, then a half, then three-quarters, and then, easily, without argument, the final quarter. For some minutes a glow continued from beneath the horizon, and Jean did, at last, smile towards this post-mortal phosphorescence. Then the aeroplane turned away, and they began to lose height.”
...Some of the things which I took away from this magical, unreviewable book.
The last third went a bit weird though, forseeing
Intersting ideas on death and religion are what kept me engaged to the end despite the slightly dated feel of the envisioned future.
A boomerang book: Didn’t care for the book the first time, read it too fast, much better the second reading.