A report by Catherine Han on the third BookTalk of the 2015/16 season, which took place on 11 Feb 2016: a discussion of Julian Barnes’s Booker prize-winning The Sense of an Ending (2011).
I remember a period in late adolescence when my mind would make itself drunk with images of adventurousness. This is how it will be when I grow up. I shall go there, do this, discover that, love her, and then her and her and her. I shall live as people in novels live and have lived. Which ones I was not sure, only that passion and danger, ecstasy and despair (but then more ecstasy) would be in attendance. However … who said that thing about ‘the littleness of life that art exaggerates’? There was a moment in my late twenties when I admitted that my adventurousness had long since petered out. I would never do those things adolescence had dreamed about. Instead, I mowed my lawn, I took holidays, I had my life.
But time … how time first grounds us and then confounds us. We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imagined we were being responsible but were only being cowardly. What we called realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things rather than facing them. Time … give us enough time and our best-supported decisions will seem wobbly, our certainties whimsical.—Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending (Jonathan Cape, 2011), p. 93
Like so many of Barnes’s narrators, Tony Webster is resigned to his ordinariness; even satisfied with it, in a bloody-minded way. In one light, his life has been a success: a career followed by comfortable retirement, an amiable marriage followed by amicable divorce, a child seen safely into her own domestic security. On harsher inspection, ‘I had wanted life not to bother me too much, and succeeded—and how pitiful that was.’ Barnes is brutally incisive on the diminishments of age: now that the sense of his own ending is coming into focus, Tony apprehends that ‘the purpose of life is to reconcile us to its eventual loss’, that he has already experienced the first death: that of the possibility of change … Barnes excels at colouring everyday reality with his narrator’s unique subjectivity, without sacrificing any of its vivid precision: only he could invest a discussion about hand-cut chips in a gastropub with so much wry poignancy.
When we’re young, everyone over the age of thirty looks middle-aged, everyone over fifty antique. And time, as it goes by, confirms that we weren’t so wrong. Those little age differentials, so crucial and so gross when we are young, erode. We end up all belonging to the same category, that of the non-young. I’ve never much minded this myself.
But there are exceptions to the rule. For some people, the time differentials established in youth never really disappear: the elder remains the elder, even when both are dribbling greybeards. For some people, a gap of, say, five months means that one will perversely always think of himself—herself—as wiser and more knowledgeable than the other, whatever the evidence to the contrary. Or perhaps I should say because of the evidence to the contrary. Because it is perfectly clear to any objective observer that the balance has shifted to the marginally younger person, the other one maintains the assumptions of superiority all the more rigorously. All the more neurotically.—Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending (2011), ch. 00
The way in which we construct our histories, our fictions, is the subject of the novel, which shares its title with Frank Kermode’s critical study of 1967. Poised between a straightforward story and a novel of ideas, Barnes has it both ways, just as he often contrives to be so English and so French at once. He succeeds in this partly because he is too clever to let his cleverness get in the way: the ideas are filtered through a mind less agile than his own, so that theory is always bound by character.—2011 review in the Times Literary Supplement
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.