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Sunday, November 20, 2011

An Average review of Julian Barnes (2011) The Sense of an Ending

At bedtime we listen to BBC World Service as a kind of sedative – a factual, Average, monotone drone that hovers in the air without ever releasing its payload. Well, on rare occasions there is a slight elevation in tone, such as the almost palpable relief expressed in announcing this year’s Man Booker Prize winner: the Englishman Julian Barnes. After all, after years of ex-colonials making the grade, there was a growing perception that the autochthons had lost the plot as afar as English literature was concerned – another nail in the coffin of the British Empire. Accompanied by much congratulatory commentary from the British media and English culture vultures, one simply had to read the book to see what all the understated excitement was about. Of course once should have been somewhat suspicious given that the chief judge of the competition was a former head of MI5 – one with low-brow literary ambitions à la James Bond.

The novel – or novella – is an easy read much in the manner of a Groschenroman (or Mills and Boons). The plot is as unlikely as generally in that genre. Being a contemporary of Julian Barnes – and his protagonists - I find it difficult to believe that the high school scene of the 1960s would give rise to a friendship between three Average male students and one (Adrian Finn) who stands out as an academic teacher’s pet. At school birds of a feather flock together. Adrian’s characterization as reading Camus and Nietzsche sounds wrong too: the two authors are poles apart and hardly have a joint readership. Tony Webster as the first-person narrator – painted as the Average bore per se – reads Orwell and Huxley and as such should be a real child of the 60s. If Tony Webster is Julian Barnes’ alter ego we can only assume that both are so mixed up and contradictory as to be almost unbelievable. If, as many a commentator has claimed, the main theme of the novella is a reflection on the uncertainties of the past – and getting old – one may well agree on the level of general confusion that has gripped the English, American and European establishment in recent decades, i.e. from the 60s onwards. Perhaps this is the conundrum of the English-English literary scene: neither wanting to be left nor extreme right, sitting on the fence, happy to be Average, sampling the Rolling Stones as much as Dvorak, live a family live with a villa in the suburbs, be well-off with British understatement, and vote for Tony Blair. 

The prescient scene of Robson, their Science Sixth fellow student, committing suicide because of impregnating his girlfriend, is a clumsy reverse order deus ex machina, and while not impossible but improbable, is also used as quite an absurd vehicle to convey the supposed teenage angst of all matters sexual: a liberal lashing with below the belt homilies like ‘taking the piss, wanking, fucking’ and calling the unfortunate Robson a ‘fucking bastard’ for having had the audacity to have sex before suicide, when he, Tony, could only conceive of the female sex as a literary mirage. As Tony keeps pointing out, the 60s as the age of free love had not reached him at all – he was still living in the prudish 50s. In fact at the end of the novella, now aged in his sixties, it still looks as if Tony hasn’t gotten any further.

In the next scene the reader is called upon to witness a paradoxical if only partial reversal in the sexual adventures of Tony: as a university student he meets the femme fatale, a somewhat coquettish (read cock-teasing) creature who in the end turns out to be a sincere woman dealing with a traumatic experience not of her own making. A true-to-life story would have been that Tony first meets the woman who he marries later on in life: the Mrs. Average that matches his own Average personality. The Tonys of this world never make out with the Veronicas of this world. However, as we are forced to endure the further improbable events, like Veronica eventually shacking up with Adrian Finn, we may as well point out one of the main flaws at this point. While in the plot it is revealed much later that Tony had written a pathetic letter to Adrian (and Veronica), we can only wonder why - for the letter is so vindictive as to be completely unbelievable, like cursing the children they might have as a sort of biblical thunderbolt, a literary device reserved for overwrought tragedies or Groschenromane (Mills and Boon) in equal measures. Would you write such a deranged letter to a school friend whom you admired for his intellectual prowess even though he acquired your former semi-girlfriend as his own? Highly unlikely if you were an Average member of polite British society, like Tony is portrayed to be.

In any case, the confusion that is manufactured to arise from this letter is even more improbable. As we learn in the end, Adrian fell for Veronica’s mother and had a handicapped child by her before committing suicide. That Tony should believe, until the very end of the story, that the child was Veronica’s, and that Veronica should concoct these scenes of discovery after her mother’s death, proclaiming forever ‘you don’t get it and you never will’ – all this is as ridiculous as it is supposed to be tragic. Indeed if the novella had been conceived as tragicomedy, perhaps in the sense of Shakespeare’s last plays, one might give Julian Barnes the benefit of the doubt.

If my most admired school friend, with whom I stay in contact by means of writing letters (and postcards), acquires my former semi-girlfriend and then meets her mother (as I did) and then is seduced by The Mother (as I got a vague inkling it could have happened to me when I was there) and then they have a handicapped child and my good friend commits suicide because of it … how would I NOT know about this sequence of events? Even suppose that for some inexplicable reason I did not know and somehow assumed that the handicapped child (who as an adult mysteriously recognized Tony as some sort of malevolent intrusion) was Veronica’s, hence when I met Veronica again after getting this strange inheritance from her mother (recently passed away), wouldn’t she tell me the full story? Keeping it all in the dark and having me make the wrong assumption as to who is the child’s mother when driving around with Veronica … this doesn’t make any sense. The idea that Veronica is drip feeding me with snippets of information when I obviously have no clue as to what is going on is equally obscure, just as much as my sudden obsession to frequent the pub in that location where the now adult handicapped man-child shows up periodically with a posse of others in ‘community care’. For something to write about while waiting I have an elaborate conversation with the waiter as to why ‘hand-made’ potato chips cannot be made thinner on order, i.e. ‘hand-made’ is just a marketing ploy by the company that makes them and sells them to the pub. There are quite a few such interludes that have absolutely nothing to do with the story – nor can they be classed as philosophical in(ter)jections to educate the reader as to what history is and isn’t.

Quite a few of the enthusiastic British reviewers (Prodger, Jordan, Tonkin) noted that the precision of language contributed to the relatively short treatise and that this implied mastery of the short literary form. In my opinion, if one stripped away the superfluous – as mentioned above – one would end up with a short-story, the plot of which is bizarre, and the moral of the story cannot be ascertained due to the determined strategy of the writer to make the law of Averages apply to the written word, thus stripping away any novel meaning. A good novel/novella/short-story should make you think and challenge your beliefs. A Groschenroman (Mills and Boon) is romantic nonsense at its best and convoluted malevolence at its worst. The Sense of an Ending is somewhere in-between. When you compare it to other worthy Booker Prize winners like Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, one can only assume that English-English literature is in the doldrums as much as Old Europe and Britain is. Literature conceived as social realism must be believable – The Sense of an Ending is not. Entertainment Weekly's Stephen Lee gave it a B+. Let’s take away the + and make it an Average B or B-.

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