David Sexton

The revised version

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

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.

Already a subscriber? Log in

Keep reading with a free trial

Subscribe and get your first month of online and app access for free. After that it’s just £1 a week.

There’s no commitment, you can cancel any time.

Or

Unlock more articles

REGISTER

Comments

Don't miss out

Join the conversation with other Spectator readers. Subscribe to leave a comment.

Already a subscriber? Log in