Wednesday, 13 August 2014

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

You’ll read The Sense of an Ending (pub. 2011), it’s just 150 pages, in a few hours but reflect on it for much longer. Nothing is wrapped up neatly, there is no perfectly composed resolution. Those blurry images that you hold at arm’s length to puzzle out remain enigmatic. One thing though, the blurb by Anita Brookner who was a previous winner of the Booker many years ago with Hotel Du Lac seems quite wrong She writes:
Like Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, which it resembles… its mystery is as deeply embedded as the most archaic of memories.

However much I peer at it I can’t take that out of it which may be a deficiency of mine but also an indication of the power of a work of art to engender contrary interpretations. Yes there is suicide in it. Yes there is a letter in it. There is no haunting in the spooky sense but there is a presence of a school friend who slit his wrists in a bath in the Roman manner with a letter a la Albert Camus that he asked to be read out at the inquest.

In the letter he left for the coroner he had explained his reasoning that life is a gift bestowed without anyone asking for it, that the thinking person has a philosophical duty to examine both the nature of life and the conditions it comes with; and that if this person decides to renounce the gift no one asks for, it is a moral and human duty to act on the consequences of that decision. There was practically a QED at the end. Adrian had asked the coroner to make his argument public, and the official had obliged.

The suicide Adrian Finn was a school chum of Tony Webster the narrator. He had gotten a first at Cambridge and looked set for academe when he took his life. His girl friend Veronica has previously gone out with Tony and the break up was ‘hard to do’ in the pop idiom of the era, the 60’s. Tony is now a retiree looking back and telling how out of nowhere and the past is a nowhere a package from a solicitor arrives with news of a small bequest and a diary of Adrian’s also left to him but not enclosed. Veronica it seems has retained the diary. How is he to get it back? A plot engine that is quite believable and that has a malevolent and Pooterish aspect to it. Webster is well versed in bureaucratic wars of attrition, he was an arts administrator used to the long war of ‘with ref. to yours of the 12th.inst.’ He is a man who wonders why fat chips are always described as hand cut and why if they are in fact hand cut they might for a change be cut in the Belgian manner.

Mastery in any craft is evinced by easiness. There are no effects that are reached after and missed. Everything flows within a broad competence and the story develops with the credible surprises of life. It is not stranger than fiction, in a sense it is a fiction and Webster discovers that he has been lulling himself with a neat composition that mitigates his guilt.

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