Like a tidal bore in a river

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, Jonathan Cape, 2011.

SECOND-TAKE REVIEW: Following SLiPnet's January evaluation of Barnes's startling, Booker-Mann prizewinning novel, Robert Greig takes the novel, and Barnes the author, into reconsideration.

The Sense of an Ending won Julian Barnes the Man Booker prize in 2011. Artists generally value prizes, which may fund a change in diet from tinned sardines to sushi; prizes also plump out CVs – and are useful to journalists (almost all artists in newspapers are “award-winning"). Trusting or impressionable folk like awards, too, believing that they represent the disinterested judgment of judicious peers, and a good dose of funding – disinterested judges’ fees included – by benevolent commercial enterprises having a cultural Damascus moment. Increasingly, literary awards in the UK are viewed as another branch of showbiz.

They also sell books, and even give employment to former MI5 bosses (such as Sheila Rimington) and TV celebrities. Still, one could say the award to Barnes is overdue, though his output has, I think, been uneven, ranging from the exhilarating and lacquered to the clunky and chunky – Flaubert’s Parrot to Before She Met Me.

The techniques of Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending are breathtaking and audacious: they’re inseparable from themes. The novel uses leaps in time, shifts of focus and resultant dazzle to describe time’s passing, its reversals – and the instability of identity. Accordingly, Barnes’s management of tone is striking, varying from amused, amusing, ironic and wry, to the tone of one aware of what he cannot know. The narrative voice, too, is that of an adult addressing adults – he assumes literacy and thoughtfulness, and is sufficiently assured of his art to tease and play with his audience: in this novel, the intellect is a dancing thing.

The novel’s literary allusions are lightly worn. Chief among these is the title, that of Frank Kermode’s 1967 essays which, inter alia, explored connections between the apocalyptic imagination and use of the technical device of peripeteia – that sudden reversal of plot movement – the equivalent of the tidal bore in a river.

Barnes’s novel senses – in uncertainty, sensing is all – many endings. The literal ones are the suicide of a classmate and that of the narrator’s admired school-friend, Adrian, who had taken up with the former’s first girlfriend. Less obvious is the way the narrator, having sought revenge, abandons one life for another, a present for a past. The plot movement is that of the tidal bore described in the first section: “[T]he crested wave of water, lit by a moon, rushing past and vanishing upstream …”

Kermode’s essays were apparently criticised for dandyism – academic code, maybe, for getting there first; or breaching academic protocol as to jargon – using “emphasise” rather than “foreground”, for example. Barnes gracefully develops the ethical and fictional suggestiveness of Kermode’s theme. He uses no jargon.

At first, The Sense of the Ending comes across as the kind of miniaturism – of milieu and emotional range – that is common in much contemporary English fiction. This differentiates it from South African writing, where Tolstoyan grandeur and social significance often prevail. But then Barnes lives in a world where, arguably, the big issues of principle and democracy have largely been settled; allocating the goodies matters more. This differentiates Barnes’s world from the South African one, where allocation may take the form of pillaging, and where principles of democratic rights and duties await consensus.

The opening chapters of Barnes’s novel have an intense (or obsessive) focus on a small circle of posturing school-friends; then, broadening, they depict the awkward, thwarted relationship between the narrator, Tony Webster, and the cool, efficient Veronica Ford, a relationship that involves navigating class differences. (Quite why – necessities of plotting apart – Master Average and Mistress Edgy bother with each other is a mystery. This may be a variant of the Procrastinating Hamlet paradox: if Hamlet acted, there would be no Hamlet.)

Plot summaries are invariably a sophisticated form of baby-talk, and in Barnes’s novel there is no beginning-middle-end narrative, but rather a depiction of evolving mental and ethical states.

We’re in the 1970s, but not that of flower power, protests or genital conversation. This is the repressed sexual, featuring fear and fumbling while still at university. So, instead, we have Adrian’s dazzling display of superior intellect – which leaves other characters gob-smacked, but to the reader is nothing more than the boring showiness of an undergraduate autodidact. Later, in what Tony unreasonably treats as an act of betrayal, Veronica hitches up with Superbrain Adrian, who, in a demonstration of the power of intellect over common sense, commits suicide.

Jump-cut to middle age, at the end of Tony’s career in arts administration, and some years after an amicable divorce: Tony is living a life of quiet desperation, when he receives a letter from the lawyers of Veronica’s mother (who, years before, had mysteriously warned him off her daughter). The mother has bequeathed him Adrian’s diaries – which Veronica refuses to surrender.

This provokes Tony to launch a subtle campaign of wooing and harassment and, more importantly, it leads to his rediscovery and revision of the past, as well as his trust in the self it had shaped.

Barnes’s novel seems to have two apparently divergent sources. The first is indicated by the frequent (unattributed) quotations from Philip Larkin’s poems. Larkin was, among other things, a dogged Euro-sceptic – “Foreign poetry: no!” His aesthetics exclude the foreign, the experimental; they foreground, as they say, the awkward shuffle with bicycle clips in a church, rather than grand emotions. His true inspiration was Thomas Hardy, not Flaubert. Contemporaneous novels added another dimension – the rancid, cruel authorial view of the buffoon-hero in the 70s, thereby expressing a deep aversion to ideas and ideals (always “grand” and “fancy”), which Barnes mocks in his portrait of Tony’s mother, with her dismissive “you intellectuals”.

The sourness of some of Barnes’s earlier work – in which women are usually devious nasties – has affinities with the provincial or insular. But this is offset by his somewhat paradoxical openness to the European, the experimental – and, most notably, to his ability to use a mass of precisely observed miniature details to achieve the symphonic and revelatory. As Larkin himself did in the poem “High Windows”.

And as other English works do (notably in theatre: Equus with its final elegy to Apollonian civilisation, and Simon Gray’s Otherwise Engaged), Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending gradually strips away the narrator’s ordinary niceness to reveal obsessive rancour and cosmic despair.

This stripping away – or a tidal reverse – reveals the radical otherness of the universe. It indicates the power of the immanent over that of the apparent.

At the end, Barnes’s Tony says he understands: he “gets it”. What this means is that he now discerns the existence of motives and facts previously hidden from him – or beyond his consciousness, out of his angle of vision. Tony eventually witnesses evidence of what he did not know before. But he actually “gets” nothing:

the young Tony experiences incidents and events which, over time, accumulate new meanings; as time passes, incidents become metaphors, then symbols and finally portents, meaning different things at different times to a different self. Finally, in a symphonic finale, the inscrutable is indicated in the only way it can be: a fact of mystery signifying a world beyond reason, domestic order and habit; veiled. Or simply a personal projection, like Aldous Huxley’s gods, invented to account for a vast starry night.

Tony gestures: “There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond there, there is unrest. There is great unrest.” (Note the evasive impersonal.)

But we may also be in:

The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless. (Philip Larkin, “High Windows”.)