Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

The modern novel is obsessed with secrets withheld. In an age when everything is potentially known, from the private messages left on a celebrity's hacked phone to the open threads and conversations on Facebook, it's as if the old novelistic trick of pulling a rabbit from a hat has to find new ways of cloaking its secrets. The first person narrator and their inevitably selective memory and retelling offers the novelist the equivalent of a personal twitter feed, with others' own conversations crowded out by the protagonist's self regard.

Accept the magic trick and the novel can win prizes, amaze the readership - but will you want to go back to it, once you know the revelation? In "The Gathering" Anne Enright's narrator keeps the key fact from us, though she could have told us on day one - and in Julian Barnes' "The Sense of an Ending" the narrator, Tony, gives us a partial account of a university love affair - only to find out the truth of his actions forty years later.

In a horse race, gamblers bet not just on the horse or jockey on the going, the course and the distance. Barnes' book is slightly more than a sprint, but less than a chase, with the winning post visible even from the start. It makes the first part of the race untidy, as his characters jostle for position. A novel needs to have veracity and in the first half of the book, Barnes struggles to achieve it. Beginning at a boys school in London, three friends add the new boy, Adrian Finn, to their number. In the first few pages you'd be forgiven for thinking this was a draft for a sixties episode of "The Inbetweeners" with less sex-talk and more philosophy. They split, as friends do, to go to university, where, almost absently, our narrator tells of his own first relationship, with a girl called Veronica, who, despite it being the sixties is reluctant to "put out." Both precise in its time (the late 60s) and sloppy in its detail, you feel that Barnes, or more truthfully his unreliable narrator, is just in a hurry to get round the bend. Is there such a difference between studying at Bristol as Tony does and Cambridge as Adrian does? Are the class differences between him and Veronica's family really as marked as he makes out? This is hardly Alan Sillitoe territory. Tony listens to Tchaikovsky and Dvorak whilst his girlfriend has more sophisticated (but unremarked tastes), and, oh, he's got "the Beatles, the Stones...etc." a generic list of 60s music if ever there was one. Though I can well believe that priggish middle class boys would have a bit of classical alongside their pop music, the details of this life are slapdash, reading like a first draft that should be fixed later.

For later is when the novel delves into the psychological ripples of events - and harsh words said and written - nearly half a century before. We meet the retired Tony, post-divorce, his marriage and daughter written off in a couple of paragraphs, as his past comes back to him via a letter from a solicitor regarding the estate of his ex-girlfriend's mother, a woman he only ever met the one weekend. On these thin pivots, Barnes weaves a meticulous plot of secrets withheld, misunderstood - and lives twisted out of what they might have been. Without the "sense of an ending" that this letter and the subsequent events provide, it would be hard to single out these lives as different than any others. Again, as so often in the work of Barnes and his contemporaries (Amis and Kureishi in particular), male friendship and the betrayals that can come from pursuit of the same woman are central to this short, poignant work. If Tony isn't particularly telling us the "whole truth" the holding back of information which is the thing that allows these novels to work comes here from Veronica who in a single email could have made the second half of the novel redundant. Without her voice we are left with Tony's gradual realisation - as he comes to the final furlong - of what the sequence of events both on and off stage, actually was.

It's impossible to say any more without "spoilers". However, despite its many structural and psychological qualities, it is not without major flaws. In "On Chesil Beach" Ian McEwan writes about a more innocent time - pre-sixties - as if to remind us that it once existed and here, writing about a similar middle class cohort, Barnes gives us the line that for many people the sixties only actually came about in the seventies. Very true for working class people in the Midlands and the North - but for the southern middle classes heading to university in the late 60s? Perhaps...but one wonders. The cultural references all seem wrong somehow - and its like Barnes doesn't really care. His narrator is prone to saying he lacks interest in things - whether music, football or cars - then will digress enough to list long-forgotten British sports car marques. Our own memories might be flawed, but we expect more from a narrator. It hardly seems enough to say "I'm not sure" or to dismiss memories as unimportant, when in the next breath he's reciting conversations verbatim.

There's something else though - Barnes is usually complimented on his elegant prose, but elegant or not, much of the first half of this book seems barely competent, stock scenes that are meant to take the place of more considered character building. In his rush to get to the denouement, with his carefully assembled architectural structure, I found myself despairing at the inauthenticity of much of the novel, the arbitrary nature of much of the writing, as if he was more interested in the scaffolding than the building. Whereas Stephen King's "11.22.63" which I read the previous week takes infinite care over the minutiae of his fictional late 50s, here we have a casualness that seems all too common in even our better writers. Detail, whether its pop cultural references or socioeconomic truth is somehow seen as unecessary. The psychological truth of the book is all that matters. Read Coetzee's "Summertime" and you'll find a preciseness to both the language and the subject matter that is lacking here. Adrian Finn is given to us in second-hand, through broad brush strokes of verbatim sparring with his schoolmasters, yet this all seems to be telling rather than showing. Veronica and her family are all described so disparagingly that the idea that she was ever any more to Tony than a casual university relationship would seem absurd. As always in these novels of male friendship, the crucial friendship is the other one - between Tony and Adrian - yet in reality it hardly exists - and when they are separated by a circumstance, you feel it is with mutually beneficial.

Barnes has always been at his best in the immediacy of the moment - whether its the satirical thrill of the ark in "A History of the World" or the psychological menage of "Talking it Over." And he's back there again, excelling at a small psychodrama that wants us to examine life, regret, memory and love. Yet it seems to me that however effectively he does this, the tools he uses elsewhere in the book are becoming blunt - the novel relies too much on our good grace. Contemporary British writers have a tendency to extol masters like James, Proust and Flaubert, yet seem to offer a mere echo of them, and think that is enough. The lives we are reading about in "The Sense of an Ending" seem inauthentic, the story schematic, and the detail uneven and prosaic even as, with his usual masterly application of narrative structure and psychological motive, he drags us breathlessly to the finishing line. It's an effective conjuring trick, but feels somehow old hat - a trick that the experienced reader has seen once too often.


Redlands Book Club said...

I have an audio version of this boo so I can't see how it is spelled. tony mentions being able to listen to ?? as much as he wants after breaking up with Veronica. It sounds like "a nomie du femme". I tried Googling and came up with a French torch singer - is that who he is referring to? Because he mentions Dvorak and Tchaikovsky in the same paragraph. Please help!

Ceska said...

"The Sense of an Ending" is essentially an existentialist mystery, and readers familiar with this philosophy will be able to discern some of its standard themes even in the passage cited above: inauthenticity, responsibility, ennui and the encounter with nothingness. Barnes's protagonist grapples with the big questions and obliges the reader to do so as well--albeit vicariously, from the comfort and safety of an armchair. Although, this last remark may be misleading. That is to say, this is no mere objective or cerebral exercise: the characters are convincing; the drama is emotionally engaging; and the book is driven as much by psychology as by philosophy.

Sofia Capel - Londonbloggen said...

Redlands Book Club: Do you mean Un Homme et un femme?

Meera said...

The story's facade is simple, refined almost to monotony and dependent on the revelation of a secret towards the ending. But what is hidden between the lines is far more chaotic—and likely to leave the reader anxious for days after finishing the book. I loved that the book made me really think about regret, and repentance. It also made me think about the idea that we are always dishonest narrators of our own lives. And the book was very disturbing that it made me think about how easy it is to think you are one kind of person, when you are actually not and how universal human frailty is.
The ending was excellent that it left me lost in the lines, sitting there, recollecting all the little pieces of story back together in my mind. And it left me chaotic and disturbed for days after finishing the book.

Adrian Slatcher said...

He's superb on structure, Meera, but it struck me that the main "tension" was a fake one. I also disliked what it said about disability. I felt that it was quite a dishonest novel, somewhat complacent about tweaking his audience. That said, your reading seems to be an accurate one, I, for one, was just a little annoyed at being manipulated.