The Sense of an Ending
(Man Booker Prize, 2011)
(Man Booker International Prize, 2011)
We want people to buy and read these books. Not buy and admire them.
What an odd critical judgment. Remind me again, why can’t we admire them? To the judge of the Man Booker Prize who said this: I’m inclined to give you the benefit of the doubt; to say that what you probably meant to suggest with the word ‘admire’ was a distaste for the idle gaze of blind admiration that one gives a prize-winning book. In other words, you were condemning the gazers and favouring the readers. In this spirit, we can drop the subject of the eminent prize that groups these two novels together, and proceed to actually discussing them. But before that, we should at least address the fact that this prize, as it represents these two authors, is in the business of securing reputations—not forming them. Yet, Roth and Barnes are writing in two different imaginative territories: Roth’s imagination in this novel is what you might paradoxically call realist-parabolic; Barnes is in a familiar territory of his own England-of-the-mind, ‘semi-farce’ (as he called it) at times, deeply tragic at other times. Both of them, however uniquely, have written tragedies.
A community of Jews, culturally insulated, wander through desert-temperatures, stricken down by mysterious pestilence and disease, unredeemed by a God who seems both unjust and absent—sound familiar? Nemesis is the Old Testament, re-incarnate in the New Jersey polio epidemic of the 1940’s. There is a very peculiar kind of clumsiness to this book. Roth’s Nemesis, at its worst moments, is an overwhelmingly heavy-handed gesture toward the Biblical, the classically tragic, and the parabolic. We are in Great American Novel territory. This tactic, however, is not intrinsically fatal: Roth previously succeeded in writing a book actually called The Great American Novel. But the brilliant comic extravagance that was that book’s hallmark is completely absent in Nemesis. Roth seems to have gone tone deaf. The gleeful sexual perversion, dark humour, and extremely subtle variation of satiric tones that mark many of his other novels have fallen away. In their place is a carefully crafted character, a spare prose style, and a very heavy scaffolding.
Roth’s protagonist Bucky Cantor is a fresh-faced twenty-three year old, beginning his first job in the athletics department of a New Jersey high school. Bucky’s stalwart belief in his job and community is combined with a pervasive guilt stemming from the fact that he was unfit for combat in World War II. This is essentially the whole character: the good boy, haunted by guilt, braves a polio epidemic in a Jewish community in New Jersey—except for the final, ultimately tragic twist which ends the second section. I won’t ruin the plot here, but essentially the book’s perspective hinges on a crucial shift in our knowledge of who the narrator is. Two hundred forty pages into the book (it’s only 280 pages long) we learn that the supposedly omniscient narrator is actually an acquaintance of Bucky, and has been relaying his story in a biographical matter. This decisive shift alters the reliability of the story, re-enforcing the notion that the supposedly omniscient narrator is actually just as liable to misremember or misconceive the plot of Bucky’s life as anyone else. It’s also an excuse for painfully adolescent dialogue on the non-existence of God. Justice and Mercy, God and the Devil—what I find hard to believe is that Roth has the necessary distance from his characters. Sometimes I just hear Philip Roth, The Great American Novelist, in a passage like this, in which the narrator comments on Bucky Cantor’s tragic character flaws:
He has to convert tragedy into guilt. He has to find a necessity for what happens.
There is an epidemic and he needs a reason for it. He has to ask why. Why? Why?
That it is pointless, contingent, preposterous, and tragic will not satisfy him. That it is a proliferating virus will not satisfy him. Instead he looks desperately for a deeper cause…in God or in himself…this is nothing more than stupid hubris… the hubris of fantastical, childish, religious interpretation.
This was one of the moments in which I felt like Roth was taking us for a hyperbolic sprint down memory lane. The grandiose thematic nature of Nemesis is not its problem. These issues (nostalgia, God, His non-existence) should animate any novel, but here the problem is lightness of touch. These reflections on Bucky’s character read, at times, like botched lit-crit. I increasingly began to feel as though the narrator were a critic, exercising his superb undergraduate knowledge of mythos and ethos as it functions in the tragic novels of Philip Roth; I didn’t feel that Roth had any ironic distance from these characters—which is to say, it was the opposite experience of reading Julian Barnes’ new novel.
The Sense of an Ending reads like two novels. The first half is a brief (yet remarkably full) portrait of a middle-class English upbringing. Within the beautiful serenity of this youthful pastoral is the narrator’s knowledge of the very banality of the picture he has been painting, a knowledge that:
There was nothing to distract us from our human and filial duty which was to…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.
Tony, Barnes’ protagonist, is a beautiful monster. We begin by believing his narration, trusting him, sympathizing with his judgements. But Barnes’ authorial technique is, ultimately, an exercise in undermining the very trust he has built in us—and it’s a wonderfully tragic exercise. We spend the first half of the book in that prototypical novelistic mix of sympathy for and judgement of the character. The school-boy Tony seems aloof, jealous, snide at times, but ultimately possessed by a wholly relatable sarcasm and youthful ignorance. And then, suddenly, hilariously, the novel switches into warp-speed,
I’m retired now. I have my flat with my possessions. I keep up with a few drinking pals, and have some women friends…I’m a member of the local history society…And that’s a life, isn’t it? Some achievements and some disappointments. It’s been interesting to me, though I wouldn’t complain or be amazed if others found it less so.
Barnes’ tongue is wedged very far back in his cheek. This is a deeply ironic and humorous passage, a stupid meditation from a man who, since we know the drama of the novel hasn’t even begun, is clearly wrong in everything he’s asserting. It’s a conventional attitude and a stock character type: the worn down old man who stoically pretends to accept the banality of well, that’s just life—isn’t it?
And so Part I of the novel ends, the stage crew comes on in the dark and they change the scenery, and then suddenly—no, no—we’re in exactly the same place we were before. Nothing yet has changed at the opening of the second half. It is in these bizarre fluctuations of time and place that Barnes’ humour and architectural brilliance comes out clearest: Barnes is taking the piss out of Tony’s inability to conceive of time. ‘We live in time—it holds us and moulds us—but I’ve never felt I understood it very well,’ he remarks on the first page of the novel. But Tony is a character who is incapable of remembering the destructive nature of his own behaviour, since he is incapable of understanding that human behaviour, his own included, is liable to change with time. He has absolutely no sense of his own flaws and is, in that respect, representative. I will not explain the details of the drama which unfolds, but, suffice it to say, he eventually becomes aware of his own cruelty. Yet, being the man that he is, and—again—being a very representative member of the human race—he can only come to one conclusion: ‘There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest.’
Reading Nemesis after The Sense of an Ending was extremely difficult. I had the strong sensation both Roth and Barnes were attempting something similar, but that where Roth had failed by over extending his range, Barnes had designed a tragedy with unique proportions at once classical, fluidly secular, and light to the touch. Bucky Cantor is a character in the mould of a Greek tragedy, and all the critics were right to be possessed by the title’s haunting classical allusion (Nemesis is the Greek Goddess of retribution), but allusion and classicism can both frame a novel in a tradition and kill the brilliance of its character at the same time. Barnes’ Tony is a tragic figure, and his errors seem wholly his own; they seem, for lack of a better word, human. But this conceit, that Barnes is not tied down to a classically tragic framework or a character type (nobody called this book a great Greek tragedy), is its supreme illusion, and one that I’m more than willing to inhabit. Barnes is the truly deserving recipient of the award he once described as ‘posh-bingo’.