Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending: Excerpt #2

We knew from our reading of great literature that Love involved Suffering, and would happily have got in some practice at Suffering if there was an implicit, perhaps even logical, promise that Love might be on its way.

This was another of our fears: that Life wouldn’t turn out to be like Literature. Look at our parents—were they the stuff of Literature? At best, they might aspire to the condition of onlookers and bystanders, part of a social backdrop against which real, true, important things could happen. Like what? The things Literature was all about: love, sex, morality, friendship, happiness, suffering, betrayal, adultery, good and evil, heroes and villains, guilt and innocence, ambition, power, justice, revolution, war, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, the individual against society, success and failure, murder, suicide, death, God. And barn owls. Of course, there were other sorts of literature—theoretical, self-referential, lachrymosely autobiographical—but they were just dry wanks. Real literature was about psychological, emotional and social truth as demonstrated by the actions and reflections of its protagonists; the novel was about character developed over time. That’s what Phil Dixon had told us anyway. And the only person—apart from Robson—whose life so far contained anything remotely novel-worthy was Adrian.

‘Why did your mum leave your dad?’

‘I’m not sure.’

‘Did you mum have another bloke?’

‘Was your father a cuckold?’

‘Did your dad have a mistress?’

‘I don’t know. They said I’d understand when I was older.’

‘That’s what they always promise. How about explaining it now, that’s what I say.’ Except that I never had said this. And our house, as far as I could tell, contained no mysteries, to my shame and disappointment.

—Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending (2011), ch. 1

Image by Deryk Tolman

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