The narrator of Julian Barnes’s novella has failed disastrously to understand his first love. David Sexton admires this skilful story, but finds something missing
Julian Barnes once said that the only time he had ever threatened to throw a guest out of his house was not because the churl had disparaged his food or insulted his wife but because he had disputed the greatness of Ford Madox Ford’s novel The Good Soldier.
In the introduction to the Folio Society edition of the novel he wrote a couple of years ago, he called it ‘the most perfectly deployed example of the unreliable narrator’, and explained its method thus: ‘The storyteller isn’t up to the level of his own story; he is a bumbler obliged to convey an intrigue of operatic passion which he himself only partially understands. . . . ’
The book has had enormous ‘subterranean influence’ on other writers, he suggested, slyly citing ‘one of our better known literary novelists, whose use of indirection and the bumbling narrator seemed to me to derive absolutely from Ford’ (no prizes for guessing who this might be). He had asked this writer if he had read Ford and been told yes, indeed. He then asked if he could mention this fact in his piece and two days later received the reply: ‘Please pretend I haven’t read The Good Soldier. I’d prefer it that way.’
The Sense of an Ending, a 150-page novella told in the first person, could only have been written by a committed Fordian (and duly features a family named Ford). Our narrator,Tony Webster, however, is not so much unreliable as dependably imperceptive and mediocre, as he tells us the disaster of his life which he has not only not comprehended but scarcely noticed.
His story begins at school, and from the start he warns us that what we are getting might be no more than ‘approximate memories which time has deformed into certainty’.
He leads a little clique of three pretentious boys in the sixth form, when a new boy arrives — Adrian Finn, shy, clever and ‘essentially serious’. This newcomer soon makes his mark, telling the English master that a poem is about ‘Eros and Thanatos, sir’ and making incisive analyses of responsibility in history, for example in considering the origins of the first world war.
When another boy at the school hangs himself after getting his girlfriend pregnant, leaving a note that says ‘Sorry, Mum’, Adrian daringly discusses his case in their final history lesson, as an example of the difficulty of ever knowing what really happened. ‘History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation,’ he pronounces, attributing the aphorism to a fictitious Frenchman, Patrick Lagrange.
The boys finish school and go their own ways, Adrian to read Moral Sciences at Cambridge, Tony to do History at Bristol. There Tony finds a girlfriend, Veronica Ford, whom he thinks nice. ‘Well, I probably would have found any girl who didn’t shy away from me nice.’ But she’s wilful and won’t sleep with him — this is the Sixties, ‘but only for some people, only in certain parts of the country’. She takes him back to her home in Chislehurst for a weekend, where he is greatly struck by her mum, and he introduces her to his friends, before they break up. But when Tony then receives a letter from Adrian asking his permission to go out with Veronica, he is enraged and writes to them nastily, breaking off relations with both. ‘As far as I remember, I told him pretty much what I thought of their joint moral scruples.’ (He has thus refused the Jules et Jim scenario, which Barnes has always found so alluring.)
Returning from a trip to the States, Tony is shocked to find Adrian has committed suicide at 22, slitting his wrists, leaving a note cogently explaining the philosophical duty to examine the conditions of life and act on one’s decision, for or against — and Tony respects, even admires, this reasoning.
At this point, 50-odd pages in, Barnes whizzes us through the next 40 years of Tony’s humdrum life in 300 or so dismissive words. He has been ‘peaceable’, as he calls it. He has worked in dull arts administration. He has married a prosaic woman, had a daughter with her, and amicably divorced. Now 62, he is retired, a member of the local history society, keen on keeping his flat tidy. He is another of Barnes’s safe, second-rate, pedantic men who understand their hobbies and routines much better than they do love or life (there was a corker in Pulse, the short story collection he published earlier this year, about an obsessive rambler trying to recruit a girl for his trudges).
And then Tony receives a surprise legacy from Mrs Ford, Veronica’s mother — £500 and two startling ‘documents’ — which force him to reconsider his entire history and the responsibilities of his life. Although he has a series of brief, frustrating meetings with Veronica, he doesn’t grasp the basic facts of what has happened until the very end — and then he diverts his attention to the chips he is eating and the question of why, if they are truly ‘hand-cut’ as advertised, they cannot be cut thin as well as fat (Barnes’s books include The Pedant in the Kitchen).
So The Sense of an Ending is another of Barnes’s games of knowledge — skilfully played with you as the reader, to ensure that, while knowing that Tony is not getting it right, you cannot get to the truth either until he does, at which point you too have to go back over his history, to understand the ironies. It’s a story with dark insight into how we fabricate our lives increasingly as we age:
The longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but — mainly — to ourselves.
Yet this novella does not move or satisfy. Partly that may be because of its length, more than a conte, less than a novel, making its story both under-described and over-determined, sketchy yet relentlessly purposeful. Partly, though, it’s to do with the way it ultimately turns on a disabled child. If Ford Madox Ford is one of the sources for The Sense of an Ending, another is Larkin’s poem about childlessness and responsibility, ‘Dockery and Son’, in particular the lines ‘Why did he think adding meant increase?/ To me it was dilution.’
In Barnes’s timor mortis confession, Nothing To Be Frightened Of, by far the least sympathetic section was scoffing at ‘the proposed intergenerational portage’, as he called the carrying on of life. Here, he has been careful to equip his narrator with a daughter, but she doesn’t appear or effectively exist. It is a story repelled by the responsibility of having children, and its final disclosure is offputting. Julian Barnes won the David Cohen Prize for Literature this year and the distinction was deserved for the sophistication, ingenuity and variety of his work. But where’s the heart?