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Julian Barnes: He has written a magestic three-part book

Julian Barnes has written a book about death. Well, death and life. Death, and life, and love. Death, life, love, and hot air ballooning. Yes, this last seems incongruous; but such is the mastery of his voice that he persuades the reader of the vertigo of all the central life-experiences. It's not called "falling in love" for nothing — and while Barnes is too subtle an examiner to make this point, his little exposition, though hardly uplifting, is concerned with height and depth. 

The middle section, and the most enjoyable bit, of this slight but mesmeric book concerns the 1870s love affair between a French actress, the celebrated Sarah Bernhardt, and an English captain, Fred Burnaby. Now it's perfectly obvious what's going to happen when a poor old Englishman falls for an exotic beauty. And Bernhardt is more than just French — she's Jewish, for one thing, Slavic for another; and as if that wasn't enough she's an actress, too. "She seems to embody truthfulness, theatricality and mystery," is all the warning siren we need: she's a heartbreaker, perhaps not in the vein of Lizzie Eustace but it would not be an exaggeration to say she's built along the same lines as Madame de Merteuil. "[I am] so thin," she simpers, more than once, "that I can slip between rain drops without getting wet." Give us a break, love. No one's falling for that one. 

Except that they are. Sarah's also the worst kind of manipulator, pretending to yield while actually withholding all. She's dramatic and disingenuous — a bitch, in other words, and a seductress. She lures Burnaby into her quarters like Keats's Lamia, like Apuleius's Cupid. "If there were servants, he did not see them; if there were parrots or lion cubs around, he did not hear them. He heard only her voice." Of course there are servants in this courtesan world; of course there are animals, for this is a jungle. 

Needless to say, Bernhardt ditches Burnaby, and even in the moment of cessation is cementing her own canonisation: "Do not be angry with me," she instructs Burnaby even as she humiliates him.

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