Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Julian Barnes, _The Sense of an Ending_

WELL, IT HAS been a while. We--by which of course I mean "I," proprietor, management, and sole employee of Loads of Learned Lumber, but I have been at this long enough that I feel entitled to the editorial "we"--have been awfully busy lately, and of course you've been busy yourself, no? We've all been busy.

For reasons that would be too time-consuming to explain, I had to write a paper on the pernicious influence upon our public life of Ayn Rand, which required a lot of reading--of which you may hear more later--and no small amount of writing, but even so I have had time to read a few other things, so let's start catching up.

Even though I include Julian Barnes on my mental list of living British novelists I like very much, I had not read one of his books since Love, etc., which was two or three or four back. But how do you say no to a Booker winner? So I read The Sense of an Ending back in January.

It's a quick read, not just short (163 pages) but quick-paced, once the dominoes of revelation about the past start falling. The story is narrated by Tony Webster, who seems to be in his early 60s; the mother of an old university girlfriend of his dies, leaving in her will that Tony--whom she has not seen in decades--be given the journal of another university friend of his, a young man who was the ex-girlfriend's post-Tony boyfriend, and who for unknown reasons committed suicide.

However, the ex-girlfriend, who is in possession of the journal, does not want to hand it over. Why not? The book from that moment on is an unspooling of memories of Tony's twenties interspersed with thwarted investigations in the present as he tries to piece together once and for all what happened among his ex-girlfriend, her parents, his friend who committed suicide, and himself.

He gets his answer. But the book's real power lies in our deepening sense of Tony. The novel is like one of those satisfyingly lengthy dramatic monologues by Browning--Sludge, Bishop Blougram, Prince von Hohenstiel-Schwanganau--where layer after layer of self-justification is peeled off until you are left with that bare, shivering thing itself, the meager self. Tony is educated, articulate, and intelligent, but we gradually see he uses his intelligence most energetically not in trying to understand but in trying to fend understanding off, to muffle the raw and bloody stuff, to keep the truth at arm's length.

Tony seems very British in his habit of mocking the earnestly analytical, in his dismissal of those (like his friend the suicide) who want to dig all the way down. But he keeps going even though the truth he eventually learns is, among other things, proof of his own callousness and obtuseness. "There is accumulation," he reflects in the novel's last sentences, "There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest."

No comments: