20 Books of Summer: #7 & #8 – a Barnes duo

When I picked my 20 books, I managed to include two by Julian Barnes, for I forgot that Julian Barnes wrote a series of crime novels in the 1980s under a pseudonym – Dan Kavanagh, (Kavanagh being the maiden name of his wife). So I read the two back to back – which worked very well indeed – for they are so, so different! I ended up having quite a lot to say about both, so be aware, this is quite a long post…

Duffy by Dan Kavanagh

There is a strong tradition of literary authors using pseudonyms when writing crime novels. Not all of them have kept as quiet about it until Julian Barnes created Duffy though. The four novels were published between 1980 and 1987 without any fanfare, and when Orion reprinted them in 2014, there was very little hoohah then either, although I knew Kavangh was Barnes when I bought the Duffy reprint from somewhere – probably the Twitterverse. I’m sure that’s what J K Rowling was initially hoping for when she wrote her first novel as Robert Galbraith – but she was outed rather early in the game.

Duffy represents an author having fun, freed from conventional literary constraint. This book is filthy! We are thrust into a seedy world of 1980s Soho full of porn shops and replete with villains and bent coppers.

Duffy used to be a cop, but he had to leave the force and now works for himself as a security consultant and private investigator. Duffy is an unusual man, he has hatred of ticking clocks and a penchant for Tupperware. Unusually for the times, he is also bisexual. His colleagues at the station didn’t like it though and he was set up with an underage young man who had sworn he was 25. He remains firm friends with his former girlfriend Carol though, she might have been the one, but it all went wrong in the bedroom department – they still just sleep together.

Duffy needs more income when he is contacted by a man who is having the ‘presh’ put upon him, he accepts the case without any further checking out. Brian McKechnie, a novelties importer, had returned home one day to find his wife tied to a chair with a long wound on her shoulder and I won’t mention what they did to the cat. This is followed by phone calls from a man calling himself ‘Salvatore’ demanding money, firstly £50, but now the amount is going up. The police don’t seem to be interested in the blackmail – it’s small beer to them, and they know McKechnie’s history – something that Duffy is unaware of when he’s hired to find out about the blackmailer. It takes Duffy back to his old stamping ground of Soho, and he (re)acquaints himself with some of the area’s establishments:

“He glanced at the rack of Big Tit mags, whose publishers had always seemed to work harder at the titles of their mags. D-Cup was still going strong, he noted, and so was 42-Plus; Bazooms was there too, making tits sound like ballistic missiles; and a new one called Milkmaids. Duffy remembered one that had started up a few years ago called Charlies’ Aunts, which had tickled him at the time; it had folded after a couple of issues – the punters probably thought it contained beaver-shots of old ladies.”

There’s more, this one at a peep show is even filthier – so highlight to see.

“The lucky man, provided his fifty pence didn’t run out, then had his window squeegeed by the girl’s c***. This happened to Duffy after he had spent about one pound thirty. It wasn’t exactly a turn-on (though it certainly wasn’t a turn-off), but it was a bit odd: rather like sitting in your car at a garage while they chammy your windscreen.”

I apologise for those images, but they illustrate the unleashed Barnes’s powers of description! The pages are full of sex and violence from start to finish, but thank goodness that Duffy is such a wonderfully well-crafted character. He’s far from perfect, but you want to be his friend, there’s something lovable about him. He’s also tough and seen it all before, so you need him on your side. The following three novels take Duffy to an airport, a football club and a country house and I’m looking forward to reading them all now, having procured myself an old omnibus paperback. If you enjoyed Keith Ridgway’s 2013 novel Hawthorn and Child (reviewed here), you’ll certainly love Duffy.  (9/10)

Source: Own copy. Dan Kavanagh, Duffy, (1980), Orion reprint, 192 pages. BUY at Amazon UK or Blackwell’s (cheaper than Amazon for a new pbk!) via affiliate links.


The Only Story by Julian Barnes

Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more; or love the less, and suffer the less? That is, I think, finally, the only real question.

You may point out–correctly–that it isn’t a real question. Because we don’t have the choice. If we had the choice, then there would be a question. But we don’t, so there isn’t. Who can control how much they love? If you can control it, then it isn’t love. I don’t know what you call it instead, but it isn’t love.

These are the opening words of Barnes’s most recent novel, his thirteenth published last year. We’re back in the familiar territory of relationships in suburbia – but with an elegant, Barnesian twist.

The novel is narrated in three parts by Paul, who is nineteen-years-old at the outset. He lives south of London in the suburbs in an area known as ‘the Village’, (Gawd! It felt so like Purley, where I grew up). Home from university for the holidays, Paul signs up for the local tennis club for something to do, and there he meets Susan Macleod, a 48-year-old housewife, when they are paired in the draw for the club’s mixed doubles tournament.

Susan is married to the ghastly Gordon, who she called ‘Mr Elephant Pants’, it’s been different bedrooms for years. Her two grown-up daughters are older than Paul and have left home. They start up a relationship, and Paul falls totally in love with Susan. The first part of the novel is told from the young Paul’s point of view in the absolute throes of love, and as he tells us:

And first love always happens in the overwhelming first person. How can it not? Also, in the overwhelming present tense. It takes us time to realize that there are other persons, and other tenses.

In Part Two, Susan and Paul set up home together, and Barnes moves Paul’s narration into the second person, as Paul recounts what happened next. They were happy for a while, but Susan started to become depressed and started drinking secretly, descending into alcoholism. Paul, still only in his mid-twenties still loves her but doesn’t really know what to do. In the final part, the narrative, we move mostly into the third person, as their relationship broke up after ten years and the older Paul looks back on his life. The first-second-third-person segue is not a new idea (see Paul Auster’s Invisible, reviewed here, for another example), but Barnes does it so effortlessly, with his elegant and spare, but not overworked prose, it just flows together so well.

I love that Susan is so emphatically not a cougar. As we discover, she has her own reasons for reveling in the attentions of another man (whatever his age). There are few supporting characters outside of Paul and the Macleods – some friends of Paul’s whom Susan calls ‘The Fancy Boys’, but, most notably, Susan’s friend and erstwhile tennis coach, Joan. Joan, an older lady, lives on her own with her ‘yappers’, and the most excitement she gets is deciding where to buy her next bottle of gin from. She is also a welcome plain speaker who refuses to give advice to Paul directly once he starts to experience problems with Susan – but it’s all there in between the lines. Joan should be bitter and twisted, having failed in love herself, but she seems determined not to let that defeat her. I loved Joan.

Interspersed with the story are Paul’s constant musings on the meaning of love, his collection of sayings – later often crossed out and reinstated. These reminded me of Alain De Botton’s novel The Course of Love – a novel about a modern love story which considers what love is all the way through a relationship too.

Although Barnes’s novel is set several decades ago, it doesn’t have an exclusively period feel – due to the language of love? This is a sad and contemplative novel in many places, always seeking to answer the question at the start, but it also celebrates the good bits. Classic Barnes, I loved it. (9/10)

Source: Own copy. Julian Barnes, The Only Story, (2018, Jonathan Cape), Vintage paperback, 214 pages. BUY at Amazon UK or Blackwell’s via affiliate links.

12 thoughts on “20 Books of Summer: #7 & #8 – a Barnes duo

  1. Col says:

    Like you I loved The Only Story. I thought the characters were brilliantly done. It reminded me a bit of John Banville’s Ancient Light which had a similar theme though with a younger male protagonist. And though I didn’t know Barnes wrote crime novels under a pseudonym that reminds me of Banville’s crime novels as Benjamin Black. So will look out for those Duffy novels!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I’ve read very little Banville – an author I keep meaning to explore properly. The Only Story was so well done.

      • Col says:

        I’d thoroughly recommend him. His prose is simply beautiful – he’s one of those authors where you think sentences aren’t just ‘written’ but are ‘crafted’!

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Such a contrast between the two sides of Barnes! 😀 I think I shall have to seek out The Only Story as I’ve rediscovered his work fairly recently – it does sound so good, and his writing always seems so effortless but obviously isn’t.

  3. Rebecca Foster says:

    The Only Story was a stand-out for me last year, and some of my favourite work from Barnes in recent years. I too have that Duffy omnibus paperback, spotted in Oxfam Books a few years back, but still haven’t cracked it open. One of these days…

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I haven’t read one of his books since Arthur & George for some reason, it was great to read two brilliant ones.

  4. Café Society says:

    I had problems with ‘The Only Story’. I thought it was a magnificently crafted book, but with its rigid control of tense and person that was what it felt like to me – crafted. I also had to take issue with his basic premise, that love is the only story. It isn’t mine. If you haven’t read anything of his since Arthur and George than do they The Sense of an Ending. I think it is a far better novel.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I will read The Sense of an Ending – on the shelf too! However, I really liked the crafted style of The Only Story contriving to reflect the stages in their relationship through tense and person. But I get what you’re saying. 🙂

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