Not Just Readability
Julian Barnes’s novel The Sense of an Ending that won the Man Booker Prize, 2011, is neither perfectly simple nor simply perfect despite its immense “readability”. In fact as the shortlist for the prize was made public, battle lines were drawn between what may define readable novels and the definition of novels with literary merit that often bear the stigma of being unreadable. However, the war of words between the two camps, readability vs. literary merit, reportedly has led to the floating of a new Literature Prize that will distance itself from the readability camp. The organizing committee members of this new prize have dismissed comments about the prize promoting elitism and have asserted that their endeavour would be to reward novels that were “unsurpassed in their quality and ambition”. Andrew Kidd, the spokesperson for the new Literature Prize has explained, “it is more about a feeling that a space has opened up for a new prize which is unequivocally about excellence- even if that sometimes means shortlisted books are more challenging and don’t necessarily fall under the easy description of readable.”
This much-maligned signifier “readability” according to Julian Barnes, however, is nothing more than a cliché. Literary merit and readability are not necessarily mutually exclusive parameters that define a novel. In fact, in his brief acceptance speech Barnes stated unequivocally that all great novels are immensely readable till perhaps one reaches James Joyce’s
Finnegans Wake. In fact, the subject position of the reader can often define the reader’s response to any fictional narrative. A universal homogenized response to a specific novel can be difficult to expect, for the variability of the reader reception is guided by factors that can include location, race, gender, sexuality, religion, ideology and even other related categories.
In a way, therefore, Barnes’s novel can be regarded as a turning point, for it not only claims a sense of an ending which remains open-ended but also may herald the sense of new beginnings in the art and craft of contemporary British fiction. After all, the Man Booker Prize is limited to writers from Commonwealth countries whereas the biennial International Man Booker Prize is more inclusive and even admits English translations of ethnic languages as competitors. The International Man Booker Prize is awarded to an author in recognition of her or his continued creativity, development and overall contribution to fiction on the world stage. Till date the recipients of this prize have been Ismail Kadare (Albania), Chinua Achebe (Nigeria), Alice Munro (Canada) and Philip Roth (America).
Julian Barnes’s novel The Sense of an Ending combines in subtle networks times past and present by focussing selectively on nostalgia, recollections, sense of loss, the vital role of memory in the average life of a secular, conscientious, educated and cultured member of the urban middle class. In fact the novel with subtle dexterity seems to address both global and local members of urban middle classes who are now senior citizens. The first person narration is very effective in creating the compelling illusion of confession and sincerity as we follow the narrator through the convolutions of his psychic dilemma and tensions, his sense of loss and longing and the final reversal of all misconstrued opinions, a sleight of hand of the author creating an unexpected twist in the tale. The reversal mode, recalls Frank Kermode’s riveting comments about the art of fiction, and of course Barnes’s novel uses Kermode’s title that further problematises the unending sense of endings.
In a way, if Frank Kermode’s Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction investigates some crucial aspects that define the construction of the novel, Julian Barnes’s novel seems to be almost a wry commentary of what may constitute the creative energies of the fictionist. The twists and turns of the novel recording unofficial histories may seem apocalyptic on multiple levels. Kermode had stated that between the tick and tock of a clock might linger the uncertain, indeterminate vitality of disorganized time. Barnes’ novel experiments with subtle irony the malleability of time and peripeteia. In a way due to the shared title, the novel can be read as an interesting study about the sameness and differences in the priorities of a theorist of fiction and the writer of fiction. Also, the narrative not only looks back and forth in time but also embeds the resonance of the fiction of not just Proust, Camus and Sartre but British fiction writers who excelled in the artful use of wit and irony such as Aldous Huxley, George Orwell and even surprisingly, at times, Somerset Maugham.
Interestingly, as Tony Webster the narrator and the principal protagonist recreates the social environment of the nineteen sixties one isn’t too sure whether it was heavenly and blissful to have been growing up around the sixth decade of the twentieth century. Barnes’s competence as a skilled wordsmith becomes obvious as he makes the narrator Tony admirably sum up in a compact single paragraph an entire era as he states with incisive precision, “There was nothing to distract us from our human and filial duty which was to study, pass exams, use those qualifications to find a job, and then put together a way of life unthreateningly fuller than that of our parents, who would approve, while privately comparing it to their own earlier lives, which had been simpler and therefore superior. None of this, of course, was ever stated: the genteel social Darwinism of the English middle classes always remained implicit.” (SOAE 7-8). But then if that sounds ironic and dispassionate, in the very next page Tony’s self-analysis takes a significant subversive turn as he comments, “In the meantime we were book-hungry, sex-hungry, meritocratic, anarchistic. All political and social systems appeared to us corrupt, yet we declined to consider an alternative other than hedonistic chaos.” (SOAE 8).
In fact, it would be odd if urban readers of Indian cities and particularly those from Kolkata do not recognize intimate resemblances with their own experiences of young adulthood in these reminiscences of Tony Webster. The novel explores the existential angst and crisis of the four friends of whom Adrian who seemed to be the most exceptional among them had expectedly read Camus and Nietzsche. Adrian’s suicide had remained an enigma to his friends, particularly Tony. The novel ends with the mystery being unravelled and the process of this slow teasing unravelling is a remarkable aspect of the novel. While Tony’s average status in life and career may suggest a sense of
dumbing down Adrian’s sensitive and intellectual liberation however leads to self-destruction. The novel from its first page till the end therefore tries to reason out the playful convolutions of time in the life of an individual and like well known existentialist fiction ends up with a baffled sense about the fascination and frustration of human living experiences. Also with remarkable subtlety the novel also embeds codes about changing times and the revolution created by new technologies as casual references to email, Google Earth and the changing social environment of England teeming with “faces from all races” powerfully signify.
The attitude towards the two women in the life of Tony Webster, Veronica and Margaret, however underscores the fact that this indeed is a male-centric narrative, and is reminiscent of the Huxleyan protagonists and their relationships with women in
Point Counter Point and Eyeless in Gaza, among others. After all Tony Webster had himself admitted in the novel that he had read George Orwell and Aldous Huxley. The novel focuses on the typical enigmatic first love theme, a woman who remains an unsolved mystery throughout one’s life, the wife who remains a friend lifelong, even post-divorce and the provocative teasing sexuality of the sixties, that seemed to oscillate between permissiveness, sexual freedom, sexual inhibitions and morality.
The role of the middle-aged attractive and frustrated Mrs Sarah Ford is in a way more typical than transgressive. Even a casual observation as when people say, “she’s good looking woman” they usually mean, “she used to be a good-looking woman” (SOAE 73) seems to be a deliberate period statement, that could be read now as sexist, insensitive and therefore politically unacceptable. Barnes’s powerful narrative steers the readers through processes of introspection, self-analysis and guilt syndrome, with time as an indeterminate factor till perhaps the novel towards the end accredits life to encompass accumulation, responsibility and some assimilation and yet at the heart of it all there lingers a sense of indefinable “unrest” that triggers the birth of new ideas, imagination and creativity that struggles to locate the elusive sense of an ending. Tony Webster’s rumination perhaps seems incisive and insightful, “sometimes I think the purpose of life is to reconcile us to its eventual loss by wearing us down, by proving, however long it takes, that life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.” (SOAE 105)
The Sense of an Ending looks back with resignation and some engagement towards
temps perdue with insinuations of the playfulness of selective memory and also foregrounds a provocative self-introspection, yet readers of say
Pigeon English or Snowdrops, two of the short listed books for this year’s Man Booker Prize, may miss the representation of contemporary socio-cultural issues, and therefore may not regard Julian Barnes’s
The Sense of an Ending as quite apocalyptic.
(First published in The Sunday Statesman 8th Day, Dec 11th, 2011.)