I haven’t had much luck of late with the newest novels. Three in a row, by coincidence, happened to be debut efforts by U. S. authors who are the children or grandchildren of Eastern European immigrants. All three sought to project themselves into their families’ ethnic backgrounds, and all three sought to deny the sentimentality of what they were doing. If an author is going to try to imagine the life that might have been led if the family had stayed in Europe, or seek to vicariously relive a grandparent’s wartime experiences, he or she can at least acknowledge they are romanticizing their heritages and have some fun with it. Instead, the reader is subjected to a dreary narrative that’s ultimately about the author learning a “new respect” for his or her forebears. All three books were stunningly well-crafted—one of the authors, only in her mid-twenties, is one of the most prodigious prose stylists I’ve ever encountered—but the tedium of the stories ultimately overwhelmed my respect for the writers’ skill. I only finished one of the three, and that was because the author of that one managed to keep a sense of humor. (The heritage sentimentality was also restricted to a subplot, which helped.) When it came to novels, I was ready to retreat into the favorites of decades past.
But then my reserve request for Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending moved to the front of the queue at my local library. The novel, this year’s winner of the Man Booker Prize, is a brisk read, and I turned the pages gratefully. It’s not a great book; Barnes is essentially going over the same ground as Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and without anything like that work’s scope, humor, or brilliantly realized ensemble of characters. However, Barnes does a capable job of presenting the philosophizing about time and memory, and he builds an effective mystery story out of the narrator’s efforts to gain a fuller understanding of his life. It’s tempting to describe The Sense of an Ending as Proust Lite, but sometimes this sort of fast-paced ersatz literature is just what’s needed. Barnes certainly brought me out of the lit-fic doldrums.
Barnes’ protagonist is named Tony Webster, and his life is pretty much the definition of dull. He’s a retired, middle-class Londoner in his sixties, and he’s pretty much never done anything of distinction or even out of the ordinary. He was a good student—though not a star— growing up. Apart from a clique of friends in secondary school, he’s never had much of a social life, and there wasn’t much of a romantic life, either. He married in his twenties, had a daughter, and divorced in his forties, although he’s still on friendly terms with his ex-wife. He’s never done anything notable professionally, either. He says of himself, “And that’s a life, isn’t it? Some achievements and some disappointments. It’s been interesting to me, though I wouldn’t complain or be amazed if others found it less so.” It’s hard for a reader not to find it less so. Tony seems the sort of person who life has largely passed by.
Or maybe it’s just that he hasn’t been aware of the life that’s been going on around him. One day he receives a probate bequest in the mail. The mother of his college girlfriend Veronica has passed away, and he’s been left five hundred pounds. The attorney handling the estate also tells him he has been willed the diary of Adrian, a friend from secondary school who committed suicide shortly after college. Veronica had started seeing Adrian after breaking up with Tony, but that doesn’t explain how her mother came into possession of the diary. It also doesn’t explain why the mother would want Tony to have it forty years after Adrian’s death. Barnes reveals the truth bit by bit. And along the way, Tony has the veil lifted from his eyes about his failed relationship with Veronica, why Adrian committed suicide, and his own obliviousness to the intrigues of Veronica’s family. In the book’s opening paragraph, Tony muses, “what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.” By the book’s end, he will never remember his experiences with Adrian, Veronica, or her family the same way again. Tony comes to understand that life isn’t just events. It’s also the context of those events, and a different perception of the context can transform one’s understanding of everything.
Barnes does a deft job of constructing the novel. He lays out the key narrative and thematic tropes in his opening paragraph; they’re the initial pieces of the jigsaw puzzle he’s asking the reader to put together. And before Barnes starts the reader on the puzzle in earnest, he presents several other pieces, which function as mini-puzzles in themselves. The novel’s opening sixty-odd pages are taken up with Tony’s narrative of his life, and we see that some of the mysteries that bedevil him have done so all along. Barnes follows Proust’s lead to a degree in generating narrative interest. Adrian is, to some extent, the book’s version of Saint-Loup; he’s the idolized friend who proves a tragic enigma. And Veronica is definitely Barnes’ version of Proust’s Albertine. Tony is obsessed with her because she never gives over to him, and he can never stop trying to make sense out of what she does or why she does it. He loves her, he hates her, his frustration with her leads him to contempt, and in the end he discovers sympathy. The reader is always left wanting more of Adrian and Veronica; the suspense is in waiting for Tony to resolve the feelings towards them that seem beyond resolving. When the mystery plot begins in earnest, the reader is perfectly primed to see how it will all play out. And Barnes deserves particular applause for how well he weaves the narrative and the musings about time and memory together. They combine to create an intriguing, finely etched portrait of a narrator-protagonist who at first glance would seem to be completely beneath interest.
I do have some complaints. The mystery plot resolves itself too cleanly. Several decades ago, the great literary critic Edmund Wilson complained that a mystery story’s resolution invariably fails to justify the tension the author builds in working towards it. I can’t help but think Barnes’ ending would have been more effective if he had offered several possible solutions—if he had allowed for the tensions of suspense to blossom into the tensions of ambiguity. Also, the climactic revelations will compel one to reread a crucial episode in the book’s opening section, and that early passage is perhaps a bit too subtly wrought for its own good.
These are small flaws, though. Julian Barnes may be getting somewhat more credit for this book than he deserves; the Booker Prize doesn’t usually go to efforts as derivative of an earlier work as The Sense of an Ending is of In Search of Lost Time. But one gives credit to Barnes for crafting a book that not only respects the audience’s intelligence but their interest as well. I came to this novel in a funk after struggling with naively self-important efforts from some highly touted first-timers. Barnes has decades of work behind him, and he knows that writing a book isn’t all about him. Art isn’t about self-expression so much as communication, which is about presenting something worth sharing, even when that something is rather modest. Good artists never forget they’re showmen.