Current Cardiff undergraduate Caitlin Coxon offers her reaction to Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, the subject of our February BookTalk.
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
Barnes never starts with characters. ‘I start with a situation, a moral error, and then I ask who it happens to.’ He described books as animals, with a structural exoskeleton—‘You have the idea of head, body, tail’—and mushier insides that the author must fill in. For ‘The Sense of an Ending,’ he’d originally envisioned a book with a long body and short head—‘a 3:1 ratio of set-up to pay-off’—but, in the course of writing, the body had shortened and the head had lengthened.
The germ of the book was a series of e-mails he exchanged with his brother, Jonathan Barnes, a professor of ancient Greek philosophy. Julian had written to Jonathan in an attempt to excavate details of their shared history such as how their grandfather killed chickens. Jonathan had replied, ‘I don’t think much of memory as a guide to the past.’ Over several years, Julian considered his brother’s point-of-view, and ending up writing a book about time and the tendency of humans, as time accumulates, to narrate our lives into shapes that the primary sources, were we ever to consult them, might belie.—2011 interview in The New Yorker
We live in time—it holds us and moulds us—but I’ve never felt I understood it very well. And I’m not referring to theories about how it bends and doubles back, or may exist elsewhere in parallel versions. No, I mean ordinary, everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly; tick-tock, click-clock. Is there anything more plausible than a second hand? And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time’s malleability. Some emotions speed it up, other slow it down; occasionally, it seems to go missing—until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return. I’m not very interested in my schooldays, and don’t feel any nostalgia for them. But school is where it all began, so I need to return briefly to a few incidents that have grown into anecdotes, to some approximate memories which time has deformed into certainty. If I can’t be sure of the actual events any more, I can at least be true to the impressions those facts left. That’s the best I can manage.—Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending (2011), ch. 1
Our first BookTalk for 2016 turns to Julian Barnes’s Booker Prize-winning novel, which deals with the themes of truth and fiction, memory, and suicide.
I remembered the day on the hill I had pelted Hassan with pomegranates and tried to provoke him. He’d just stood there, doing nothing, red juice soaking through his shirt like blood. Then he’d taken the pomegranate from my hand, crushed it against his forehead. Are you satisfied now? he’d hissed. Do you feel better? I hadn’t been happy and I hadn’t felt better, not at all. But I did now. My body was broken—just how badly I wouldn’t find out until later—but I felt healed. Healed at last. I laughed.—Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner (2003), ch. 22
A report by Caleb Sivyer on the first BookTalk of the 2015/16 season, which took place on 19 Nov 2015: a “dark listening” of Emile Zola’s turgid tale of sexuality and insanity, La Bête humaine.
In Afghanistan, you don’t understand yourself solely as an individual,” he says. “You understand yourself as a son, a brother, a cousin to somebody, an uncle to somebody. You are part of something bigger than yourself. The things that happen within families … I’m so fascinated by how people destroy each other and love each other.—Khaled Hosseini in a 2013 Guardian interview.
His blue eyes flicked to Hassan. “Afghanistan is the land of Pashtuns. It always has been, always will be. We are the true Afghans, the pure Afghans, not this Flat-Nose here. His people pollute our homeland, our watan. They dirty our blood.” He made a sweeping, grandiose gesture with his hands. “Afghanistan for Pashtuns, I say. That’s my vision.”Assef shifted his gaze to me again. He looked like someone coming out of a good dream. “Too late for Hitler,” he said. “But not for us.”—Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner (2003), ch. 5