A bad case of the Unreliables: a short screed on ‘The Sense of an Ending’

Julian Barnes’ Booker-winning The Sense of an Ending really is a drab and uninteresting little book, but something about it annoyed me enough to want to write about it. In fact I’ve ended up writing far more about it than I intended, and have come back and rewritten the start of my post. For a reason that will be become clear, I want you to know this.

I only read the book – I’ve long been a non-fan of Barnes’ work – because my wife brought it home, and I was interested to see what the best book on a supposedly dreadful prize shortlist read like. It didn’t take me long, in part because it’s short, in part because it’s full of such doggedly uninspiring and eminently skimmable prose. Picking the book back up, I open at it random, and here’s what I find:

Margaret sat and listened through the quiche and salad, then the pannacotta with fruit coulis, as I described my contact with Jack, the pages of Adrian’s diary, the meetings on the bridge, the contents of my letter and my feelings of remorse. She put her cup of coffee back on its saucer with a slight click.

Tiring, isn’t it? To be fair, Barnes would seem to be boring on purpose – the exemplary dullness of the quiche and the salad and, more to the point, the dullness of the person who thinks they deserve our approval for the addition of the pannacotta with fruit coulis. Barnes, it seems reasonably clear, is after the feel of Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier, about which he has written, and which I read for the first time over the summer.

John Dowell in The Good Soldier is, like Barnes’ narrator, Tony Webster, a dull man who somehow ends up living his life alongside decidedly less dull people – people that are, he comes to discover, even less dull than he realised at the time. Above all, they are people whose tragedy it is to be memorialised by creatures such as Webster and Dowell, “bumblers” (as Barnes has it in his – very good – piece on The Good Soldier) entirely devoid of imagination.

Ford’s book works by virtue of the intensity and complexity of the Ashburnams’ and Dowells’ lives, and the compromised intricacy with which the narrator brings the past, and his growing awareness of it, to the surface. It’s one of those books that depends for its effect on the withholding of pertinent information, and thus on the reader’s acceptance of the idea that, just as Dowell comes to know the truth of his friends’ lives piecemeal, so he narrates them in a like manner; even though (and this is the crucial point), at the point of narration, he has all the facts before him. In other words, he is artificially (or unconsciously) recreating his past ignorance.

It’s a dubious authorial move, but it’s carried off because of the psychological acuity of Ford’s prose – comparable to the vertiginous descent into the abyss of a single thought that you can find in a page of Javier Marías. It also works because Dowell, a stolid non-writer, is writing the book we read. His struggle to get down in words the most difficult episodes of his life explains and – hopefully – forgives the obliqueness and opaqueness of the resulting prose.

Barnes’ novel is different in this crucial respect. It doesn’t present itself as a written document, though it clearly comes directly from Webster’s consciousness, and seems to be narrated from a point beyond its narrative terminus. If you ignore the extreme variability of his retention of sense data (see the click of that coffee cup in the quote above) you’re still left with the uncertainty of his unreliability.

The book starts with the line, “I remember, in no particular order:” which is followed by six short memories, all of which reappear later in the novel. The book may indeed be in part about the vagaries of memory, but its narrative impetus, its reveals, twists and upsets, are delivered by what Webster discovers, ‘now’, about what happened ‘then’ – where that ‘now’ is still anterior to the ‘now’ of his narration.

He is therefore honestly unreliable in his access to the past (“what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed”) but duplicitiously unreliable about his narrative motives. To put it bluntly, there is nothing you come to discover about Webster as a character that explains his reluctance to go back and rewrite (rethink) that opening paragraph to give a more honest picture of what he is about in telling us his story (if telling it is what he is doing). His reason not to do it is not his, but Barnes’.

Which is not to say that The Sense of an Ending is all bad*. The main twist (de-spoilered: the letter) gives it a genuine fillip, and seems an authentic example of the kinds of psychological tricks we play on ourselves. But, to repeat myself: once that twist is passed, and we know what we know about Webster – and what we know he knows about himself – then everything that came before it in his narration is recast in the reader’s mind as inherently false, because back then, even on page one, even in that opening paragraph, he already knew about himself the things that we only learn later, and so wouldn’t think or narrate it in quite the same way.

In sum, it would spoil Barnes’ novel for Webster to tell his story as he honestly would, if he were the kind of character Barnes has made him. Now, is that a case of the unreliable narrator, or the failed novelist?

*  Final thoughts: as I was reading it, I was thinking how much better Ian McEwan would have written it. Then I was reminded, by reading Sam Jordison’s blog, of On Chesil Beach, and promptly retracted the thought. The Sense of an Ending is in fact very much on a par with On Chesil Beach: underwhelming novellas that gain a kind of kudos from people who think, deliciously, that because they’re shorter they’re somehow more literary.

Subsequent thought on length: all the discussion of if this book was long enough to win the Booker… the book’s too long, full stop! It’s an over-extended short story, padded out by quiche and salad, and pannecotta with fruit coulis… dull details lovingly rendered in dull prose in dubious honour of Ford Maddox Ford.

Subsequent thought on underwhelming novellas by British novelists of a certain age: Give me Night Train over Chesil Beach or this, any day.

One comment

  1. Max Cairnduff

    Interesting criticism. I have a pet hate in fiction of the artificial withholding of information – where the novelist hints at some matter of importance but leaves it unsaid for later revelation. It’s a common technique in thrillers.

    I hadn’t thought about it’s use here. To some extent the question of how Webster is narrating the story (and who to) is merely a contrivance of contemporary fiction. This stuff may seem realistic, naturalist, but in fact it’s as artificial as the most experimental 1960s cut-up novel. It just pretends not to be, or doesn’t realise its own artificiality.

    Anyway, good piece, particularly as I liked the book and am now thinking again about that, about whether I was right. This, after all, is a very serious criticism:

    “In sum, it would spoil Barnes’ novel for Webster to tell his story as he honestly would, if he were the kind of character Barnes has made him.”

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