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Staring at the Sun by Julian Barnes

Staring at the Sun (1986)

by Julian Barnes

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Look, I know in pre-internet days people were much less worldly-wise but Jean’s enduring naivety is expecting too much of the reader’s credulity. I’m not sure how Barnes expected to respond to this major character in the book but surely he couldn't have expected much sympathy for her.

I also found the structure rather odd, shifting to Jean’s son and at one stage to the son’s girlfriend suggesting a lesbian relationship with Jean. Again it seemed unlikely to me. No doubt the most bizarre character in the book is Uncle Leslie with the reader invited to speculate if he is a child molester and we are well aware that even if he isn’t, sexuality plays a part in his furtive behaviour. I found his antics odd enough to be quite entertaining but the credulous Jean was not a character I could respond to positively.

Yes, themes are raised through the characters discussing them – the nature of bravery, dying, religion, mortality – but I found them only tenuously attached to the plot. I think it was the thinness of the characterisation that made this a less successful novel for me, the characters seeming to exist so that Barnes could toy with such issues as what constitute real questions and all Gregory and Jean’s questions about dying – e.g. what happens to the skin. Is this meant to be whimsically entertaining or something more meaningful? Yes, Barnes anticipated the scope of the internet pretty well, writing this in 1986 but overall it was not to me an engaging read. ( )
  evening | Jan 6, 2017 |
Interesting examination of what is courage and how we deal with death. The time frame moves from pre WW2 to an imagined future seen mainly through the experiences of a mother and her son. ( )
  Robert3167 | May 2, 2014 |
The really important questions do not have answers: and the really important answers do not need questions. Life is itself, not comparable to anything. And all the great miracles are present in the here and the now, if only we can see them... like staring at the sun through the gap between your fingers.

...Some of the things which I took away from this magical, unreviewable book.

Read it. ( )
1 vote Nandakishore_Varma | Sep 28, 2013 |
We first meet Jean Serjeant at about the age of ten and her rather fey Uncle Leslie who plays golf, indulges in tricks, seems to have no means of income, but who relates wonderfully to the imagination of a ten year old girl. He plays a trick on her using golf tees to simulate the buds of hyacinths in a pot given at Christmas that he warns must remain wrapped until spring because light will stunt their growth. When Jean finally does unwrap the pot completely in spring she discovers the golf tees and has her first life lesson to the effect that things are rarely what they seem to be whether dealing with hyacinths or relationships or love and that while one might have certainty, one rarely has definitive answers to questions. Jean’s family billets a fighter pilot named Tommy Prosser who has seen the sun rise twice in the same day out over the English Channel and with whom Jean very tentatively explores the meaning of bravery and fear and death. Jean meets Michael, a policeman, during the WWII and they get married; the sexual aspect of the marriage is a disaster because of their mutual ignorance of the pleasures possible, and their inability to communicate about it (reminds of Ian McEwan’s description of a disastrous wedding night and similar failures of communication in On Chesil Beach). Jean is stifled with Michael: “After the guilty disappointment of the honeymoon came the longer, slower dismay of living together,” when Jean’s fantasy that “ the life of high, airy skies and light, loose clouds would continue”, was replaced by, “the slow dulling of enjoyment and the arrival of tired discourtesies.”

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.”

1 vote John | Dec 21, 2012 |
This book certainly gives one food for thought, in all directions and on different levels. And I quite understand why it is highly acclaimed ("A stunning book." - BOOKLIST calls it). What I minded, though, was the ever-present sense of morbidity throughout the narrative. I would have also wished for a more detailed account of the heroine's life - after all she lived almost a century. To me, her character was not sufficiently developed, somewhat hazy. Her son, the other protagonist, who sort of takes over in the last third of the book, is tormented by doubts about God, death, suicide - which adds to the less inflammatory quandaries that have bothered his mother since she was a young girl, and which, altogether, is the food for thought mentioned above. ( )
  Clara53 | Oct 13, 2011 |
Showing 1-5 of 11 (next | show all)
Access to the General Purposes Computer is by keying in one's social security number, and output "modified to your level of understanding", in dialogue form. ... Replies can be stern - NOT REAL QUESTION and CLASSIFIED are frequent responses to the would-be researcher hero of the book ... Cynics observed that the only things you couldn't ask GPC about were its own input, sources, principles and personnel.... It is a chilling section to read - after ADONIS, what? one uneasily speculates.
added by KayCliff | editLearned Publishing, Hazel K. Bell (Jan 1, 1991)
Julian Barnes foresees a wholly Orwellian amassing and control of information, extrapolating from the databanks and online services then available.
added by KayCliff | editLibrary Work, Hazel K. Bell (Oct 1, 1990)
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The General Purposes Computer was begun in 1998 after a series of government enquiries ... There had been various pilot schemes which had sought to put the whole of human knowledge on to an easily accessible record ... They were attempts to create the ultimate perfect library where "readers" (as they were still archaically known) could obtain access to the world's accumulation of knowledge.
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Staring at the sun charts the life of Jean Serjeant, from her beginnings as a naive, carefree country girl before the war through to her wry and trenchant old age in 2020.

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