Wednesday, June 20, 2012

When Friends Review Friends

I just got through reading The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. It is regularly described as a “novel”. It is not. It took me not quite all of an afternoon to read; it is perhaps 30,000 words long; it shows no interest in characters that don’t move the plot along; it has no description of social or political matters outside of the personal (e.g., sexual mores in the sixties). It is a novella. (On Chesil Beach is the same, by the way.) I didn’t know that they gave the Man Booker Prize to novellas.
As a novella, it is a brilliant. It is a reflection on the suicide of a clever young existentialist philosopher, Adrian, by the narrator, who had hero-worshipped him in school. We get three explanations of the suicide, each deeper and more poignant than the last, and each implicating the narrator himself in a progressively more disturbing way.
Colm Tóibin reviewed the book for the New York Review of Books. Now, I wonder at this choice. Tóibin and Barnes are part of a tiny literary elite in England, and neither is going to say anything negative about the other—and certainly not in an international journal. The review, however, is revealing, because it wallows in the social and sexual insecurities of middle class English boys who have been educated in a slightly aspirational way. Sent to a state school, they would perhaps have become vulgar, loud, and sexually confident. Sent to a “public” school, they are frozen in the complexities of the English class system, where a kiss is anything but just a kiss. In Tóibin’s mind, Barnes’s work is a prose version of poems by Philip Larkin, who is quoted or alluded to more than once in the novella:
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(Which was rather late for me)—
I am interested in how Tóibin (who, by the way, is a novelist of considerably greater distinction than Barnes—no indictment of Barnes) treats the book. One of his themes is, if I may say so, obviously false. He suggests more than once that the narrator of The Sense of an Ending reflects wisely on his past. This is just wrong. The point is that the narrator’s (bad) character is gradually uncovered and revealed by the sheer self-centred obtuseness of his reflections on his past and his dopey insensitivity to all around him. ("You don't get it. You never will. Why don't you stop trying?" says a former girl-friend.)

More importantly, I was fascinated by how Tóibin reveals his judgement. If you take one wrong view of Barnes, he says, you might ”see the plot as thin and somewhat contrived,” and the novella itself as “a quintessential English novel of its age, well made, low on ambition, and filled with restraint”. If you take another wrong view, you will find it “oddly thin and under-imagined.” (Hmm . . . if these views are so wrong, why mention them at all? Because they are not so very far-fetched?)
So what’s the right view? “Barnes’s novel, then, is not about England or about loss, but it is an attempt to find a language and a formal structure in the novel that will allow one man to make sense of things in the abstract, but also in his own voice . . . a strange and oddly powerful book.”
Oddly powerful.

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