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. Continue reading