I try to remember sometimes, when I’m waving my arms left and right, dividing books into sheep and goats and making my pronouncements about them, that quality is largely subjective. We all know this, of course. When I say a book is good, it’s shorthand for “I thought it was good.” When I say a book is bad… well, sometimes it’s just bad. But more often than not, I mean: “I didn’t like this book, and here are the reasons why. If these don’t bother you, then you might still enjoy it. Thanks, love Simon.”
I’ll be keeping all this mind when I’m writing about Julian Barnes’ Booker-winning novel The Sense of an Ending (2011), kindly sent to me by Jonathan Cape. Because Dame Stella Rimmington and her posse must have thought it the best book published in 2011. Although I can’t imagine why.
Which is not to say that I thought The Sense of an Ending was bad. It isn’t. It is very, very average. There were probably a thousand other books published in 2011 that were equally good, and many that followed a very similar pattern: lengthy biography of main character(s); twist; twist; end.
Normally I’d give you a brief outline of the plot, but to be honest the first half of the (admittedly short) novel seem to do just that. It’s Bildungsroman by numbers. We start with Tony Webster at school, with his friends Colin and Alex. They’re something of a clique, but do open up to allow the entry of new boy Adrian. He is very serious and deep etc.; they pretend to be deep, but are mostly Adrian Molesque. Everything meanders along, we get the sort of coming-of-age stuff which bores me rigid, and Tony meets his first girlfriend – Veronica Ford. Webster and Ford, geddit? Ahahahah. *Sigh*
Big event happens, which I shan’t spoil.. fast-forward forty years, and Tony gets an unexpected letter from a solicitor which reopens a can of worms. Cue all manner of reflection on the past, including trying to get back in touch with Veronica. Towards the end there comes a few twists, which were executed rather better than the rest of the novel (thought I) and, indeed, the ending is, in general, the best part. Perhaps that’s why Barnes chose his title; to draw attention to this… I think The Sense of an Ending would actually have worked much better as a short story; it does all seem to lead to a single climactic moment, and could be condensed much shorter than its 150 pages.
He (Barnes? Webster?) if fond of breaking off into observations which teeter between the profound and the platitudinous. Here’s one:
Quick flick, and here’s another:
Hmm. It does sound a bit like he’s deliberately inserting passages which can be whipped out for the blurb, doesn’t it? The narrative is from Tony Webster’s perspective, and if these musings come from him, then that’s a legitimate narrative device – perhaps Tony is the sort to make these vague sort of summaries about the world. But if they’re Barnes’ own pseudo-philosophical moments, then I am a little concerned. Similarly, I’ve always disliked the “If this were a novel…” line of writing, ever since I read it in Enid Blyton’s stories, and it’s a trick Barnes uses over and over again. His writing is, in fact, unceasingly self-conscious. In general I found his writing passable – ‘readable‘ – but nothing more. I might dip a toe into the readability/excellence debate at some point, but it is a debate already overpopulated with toes.
Perhaps my problem is that I’ve recently read Virgina by Jens Christian Grondahl, and William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, both of which are novellas concerned with the inadequacy of memory, and both of which are rather better than Barnes’ contribution to the field. I asked people on Twitter yesterday (yes, I know, how frighteningly modern is that?) and consensus seemed to be that Barnes’ win was more of a Lifetime Achievement than anything else. Since this is my first Barnes novel, I can’t comment – I can only say that I would be astonished if it were the best book written in 2011, under any criteria. Since I’ve only read two other novels published last year (one of which was by a member of 2011’s Booker panel) I don’t feel qualified to say. So I’ll hand over to those who might know better… (I picked three from many, many reviews.)
Others who got Stuck in this Book:
“I was immediately captivated by the gorgeous writing” – JoAnn, Lakeside Musing
“Although it is very well-written, I thought it was ultimately an unsatisfactory and frustrating read.” – Mrs. B, The Literary Stew
“The writing is simply gorgeous, and it tackles one of my favourite themes and plot techniques, the human condition and the reliability of our distant memory.” – Bibliophile by the Sea