Thank God for the Booker. I would never have attempted reading Barnes if he hadn’t won the prize for The Sense of An Ending. And reading him has given me so much of pleasure in the last few days.
The Sense of An Ending is quite a gem. It is a meditation on the illusory nature of time and memory, told by Tony Webster as he reflects on a life mildly lived, or so he thinks. As he delves into the depths of his memory, he realises how memory can play tricks, and that reality is often so distant from what memory serves up. Adrian, Alex and Tony are school friends in days when “we imagined ourselves as being kept in some kind of holding pen, waiting to be released into our lives. And when that moment came, our lives – and time itself – would speed up.” He reflects on those early days of precocious youth when the fear was that “Life wouldn’t turn out to be like Literature. Look at our parents – were they stuff of Literature?” Adrian is the cleverer, more seriously philosophical of the three and his suicide in his early youth is both pre-destined and profoundly shocking. And as Tony gets on with living what he terms his ‘average’ and ‘careful’ life, marrying, having children, divorcing, surviving, he does not expect time to serve him surprises any more. But the nature of time and memory is such that it does serve him surprises. A past girlfriend Veronica, a weekend spent with her family, her subsequent relationship with Adrian and a letter written in anger, all come together to dish out repercussions Tony is never aware of until the very end. And the slow realisation of the consequences of the past is lovingly teased out by Barnes with exquisite fineness ending in quite a startling finish.
Barnes’ craftsmanship is beautiful. His control of the language and the pace of the narrative is so strong, you speed away through the book, while at the same time forcing yourself to periodically stop and savour the thought so pithily expressed. And there are so many of these lovely ones peppered through the book. “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”; “Some Englishman once said that marriage is a long dull meal with the pudding served first.”; “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.”
I am quite in love.
And so I go along to another Barnes novel, Talking It Over. This has Stuart, Gillian and Oliver, a trio talking over their lives to an anonymous fourth person, perhaps the reader, perhaps a documenter of their lives. Other characters flit in and out but the primary ones remain with their characteristic voices. Stuart and Oliver are best friends through school, though their friendship is a strange one, given the difference in their personalities. Stuart is the sensible, slightly boring one, the one with the carefully stored up money, the ant to Oliver’s flamboyant, careless and yet very attractive grasshopper. All is fine with Stuart proving to be Oliver’s safety net while Oliver introduces some excitement into Stuart’s life. Until of course Gillian enters. Stuart and Gillian fall in love and on their wedding day, Oliver discovers his own feelings and that leads to a string of consequences that upturn their lives entirely.
Barnes uses his characteristic command over the language to bring alive the differences in personalities between Stuart and Oliver in their first person narratives. “And even people who say they don’t care how they look care how they look. Everyone does. It’s just that some people think they look their best by looking terrible,” says Oliver. And “I’ve always thought you are what you are and you shouldn’t pretend to be anyone else. But Oliver used to correct me and explain that you are whoever it is you’re pretending to be,” says Stuart. Of course there are the pithy reflections that I have come to think of as Barnes-isms. “Life is like invading Russia. A blitz start, massed shakos, plumes dancing like a flustered henhouse; a period of svelte progress recorded in ebullient despatches as the enemy falls back; then the beginning of a long, morale-sapping trudge with rations getting shorter and the first snowflakes upon your face. The enemy burns Moscow and you yield to General January, whose fingernails are very icicles. Bitter retreat. Harrying Cossacks. Eventually you fall beneath a boy-gunner’s grapeshot while crossing some Polish river not even marked on your general’s map.” Exquisite. There are so many of those quotable quotes, that I have four whole pages of notations in my kindle. And then of course there is the characteristic (at least I think it is characteristic, given that I have read precisely 2 books of his) Barnes twist in the ending that tends to be quite unexpectedly startling.
And that is why my love affair with Barnes continues.