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I had planned to wait a while before reading The Sense of an Ending, but Stella Rimington’s appearance at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in a discussion entitled ‘But is it a Good Read?’ (see my muse on that session) prompted me to see if it was indeed just that.  Rimington, ex-head of MI5 and now a thriller author in her own right, was chair of the Booker panel of judges in 2011, the year Sense won.  She caused a stir with her comments that the shortlist should focus on books that rated well for their ‘readability’.  Well, didn’t that send the so-called ‘literati’ into a tizz!  Commentators suggested this represented an assault on the Booker Prize, or even on literature itself; Jeanette Winterson wrote a particularly scathing piece in The Guardian.  At the time I was a bit concerned myself.  Rimington suggested in the SWF session that she had chosen the wrong word, that ‘accessible’ was perhaps better.  If it is, it’s only slightly better.  If we chose the Miles Franklin Award based on accessible, then books like Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria and Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance – both important books – would not have won.  Maybe Rimington et al herded themselves into a corner with their shortlist, making the winner a somewhat obvious choice, but whatever their faults, The Sense of an Ending is a fine novella – readable and accessible, yes, but also ‘literary’.  It might not wow Winterson, who admires literature that challenges and extends her ‘capacity to think and feel’, but it probably wouldn’t have have upset  her terribly, either.

When Tony Webster introduces himself as our first person narrator, he lists six things he remembers, then informs us: “… what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.”  We know we have an unreliable narrator.  The six things are all in a sense liquid, be it a sweaty wrist, steam rising from a wet sink, a river, “bathwater long gone cold behind a locked door”, and so on.  These images are a conscious choice by Barnes, used to reflect the fluid nature that his memories now possess as he looks back on his life in old age.  They also hold other clues, a sense of wonder at a river that runs uphill, a sense of change in the steam, a sense of foreboding in what lies behind the locked door.  So we have details that work twice as hard, serving to reflect the thematic tilt of the story to come as well as set up that story.

Tony is thinking back to his youth.  At boarding school, his circle of three friends becomes four when the strikingly original thinker, Adrian, joins the class.  There are some interesting events in this section, such as the discussion in history class about what history is and how it relies on interpretation.  Adrian stuns Tony and the rest of the class, including their teacher, with his assessment, which he ends thus:

That’s one of the central problems of history, isn’t it, sir?  The question of subjective versus objective interpretation, the fact we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us.

Adrian is not just instructing his classmates and teacher, he’s instructing the reader as well.  We’re forced to wonder, what is this history that we are going to read?  How subjective will it be?  And who is responsible for it?

Other questions are raised in this section as well, such as the boys’ thoughts on the suicide of a fellow classmate, an act they concluded was “unphilosophical, self-indulgent, and inartistic: in other words, wrong.”

Adrian raises the suicide in class, much to the horror of his classmates.  He concludes that “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”

After school, the boys go their separate ways.  Shy Tony says that he has an instinct for self-preservation.  He is atrocious with girls, so it is some surprise to him when he finds himself in a relationship with Veronica.  They aren’t right for each other but Tony is so woefully pathetic he can’t see or do anything about it.  He just goes with the flow of things.  One day the boys re-unite and Tony takes Veronica.  She is charmed by Adrian.  Sometime after Tony and Veronica’s relationship crumbles, she and Adrian get together and write Tony a letter announcing said fact.  Tony first writes a postcard saying all is fine; then he writes a letter.  This letter is just the sort of documentation discussed in their history class.  Tony recalls his version of it – his no-doubt ‘imperfect memory’ of it.  We wonder what the real version was.

Now an old man, he receives a letter from a lawyer announcing that Veronica’s mother has left him five hundred pounds in her will as well as Adrian’s diary.  Only Veronica won’t hand the diary over.  It’s all very strange.  Why did she leave the money to Tony?  Why did she have Adrian’s diary?  Tony wants the diary because it is a form of documentation, something that might illuminate his memory of events that happened so long ago.  Suddenly we find ourselves dealing not with the boring, straight-laced man we thought we were, but someone infinitely more complex.

There are countless wonderful set-ups and pay-offs throughout.  As could be expected in a book of just 150 pages, every detail works hard to earn its place, even the particular flat-handed, horizontal wave that Tony receives from Veronica’s mother as he departs after a weekend is placed very specifically.

There are moments of delicious humour too.  When Tony visits Veronica’s parents’ house for the weekend, he takes the only suitcase he owns.  It’s huge, and he wonders whether they will think he has come to burglarise their home.  We’ve all been through those moments were we ‘meet the parents’ and stay over for a night or two.  It’s never-wracking and strange and Tony is in a dither about everything that happens, about comments made by her brother, about winks shared between family members, about why Veronica doesn’t kiss him goodnight, and about the mysterious breakfast he shares with Veronica’s mother.  And when their relationship ends, he takes a milk jug she’d given him to Oxfam in the hope she would walk past the shop and see it, but when he arrives he finds something she had given him in the window already!

Barnes captures the nuances of ageing with quiet sensitivity.  There’s an intimacy with it that is powerfully affecting.  Tony slowly pieces together the secrets.  Light is shed on those fluid memories we met at the open.  Life is made of moments, moments in which decisions are made that alter not just our own life, but the lives of those close to us as well.  This is something that Mantel made note of at the Sydney Writers’ Festival on Sunday, something she wants to capture, those moments in which history could have gone one of many different ways; she does so through a cinematic-like present tense; Barnes does so through the fog of fluid memory.  For Tony, the repercussions of his actions have rippled out in devastating waves of unexpected consequence, forcing him to reconsider everything.

Perfectly formed, weighted, and considered.  That is Julian Barnes’ masterful The Sense of an Ending.  It is a damn good read.

Sue, over at Whispering Gums liked it a lot, too.

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

2011

Jonathan Cape

150 pages

ISBN: 9780224094153

Source: the bookshelf rainbow

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Participants: Dame Stella Rimington, thriller author and Chair of the Man Booker Prize judges in 2011; Stephen Romei, literary editor of The Australian; Neil James, executive director of the Plain English Foundation; and Chip Rolley, SWF artistic director.

As chair of the Man Booker Prize judges, Dame Stella Rimington caused a bit of a brouhaha when she suggested that the shortlisted books – and thus the eventual winner – should be ‘readable’.  Many saw this as an assault on the prize’s literary status, a ‘dumbing down’ as it were.  Chip Rolley kicked off this session by asking her what she meant.  She responded by saying that perhaps she’d used the wrong word, that maybe ‘accessible’ would have been a better choice.  She didn’t mean to suggest that it need be populist or simple.  Rather, good books should be true to itself, relevant, something that is bought and read rather than bought and put on a shelf, like Ulysses.  There are no guidelines given the Booker judges apart from that the winner should be the ‘best book published in the year’.  In 2011 there were 138 books submitted to the judges, which they have to read in only a few months, owing to the need to select the longlist.  For any reader this is a herculean task.  Publishers are only allowed two books each to submit, although there are other avenues (previous winners and those requested by the judges among them).  So there is a filtering of books at the publisher level, which is why other genres – a term which is an unhelpful wall in the view of James – do not get submitted.

But is accessible a better word?  Slightly, said Romei, though Rolley said Jeanette Winterson, also a SWF attendee this year, who was scathing in her views of Rimington’s ‘readability’ was of the view: ‘what is wrong with difficult?’  She wanted a writer’s language to expand her mind.

James said that all forms of writing when done well have more in common than might be suspected.  He quoted Winston Chruchill’s wonderful speeches (and gave hilarious management-speak versions alongside) as a means of underlying his point.  Great writing can be simple and direct and inclusive.

Romei, a fan of Ulysses and Moby Dick, spoke about Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (see my review) and its sequel, Bring up the Bodies (review forthcoming), which stand out as both challenging reads – owing to cast of characters – as well as being cracking reads.  They ‘zip along’ – a reference to one of Rimington’s fellow judge’s comments.

James loves being challenged, but not being bored, to which Rimington said she bought Ulysses and got through the first few pages and found it was not giving her anything back, so on the shelf it went.  Romei said that listening to Ulysses was the ticket, something he likened it to TS Eliot’s The Wasteland, another difficult read with many allusions, but which satisfied him because he was the sort of person who liked looking those references up.  (He also highlighted the i-phone/i-pad app of The Wasteland, which will please Sue of Whispering Gums who has highlighted her pleasure with the same app on her blog.)  Part of reading is the learning, said Romei.

Rimington said that a book should be enjoyable.  When asked by an audience member what makes a good story, she said ‘change’ was key.  She talked about Julian Barnes’ Boooker winner, The Sense of an Ending, (my review coming very soon), in which we start with a seemingly boring old man but realise he’s incredibly complex as we move through the story.  James said that there needs to be shape and good characters, as well as what Elizabthe Jolly described as ‘some central mischief’ that animates the story.  He wondered whether literary prizes were somewhat past their best, to which Romei quickly countered that he was against taking ‘stuff’ away from writers, that if anything there should be more of it.

For all of Rimington’s controversial comments, the one thing that was agreed was that the Booker was awarded to a very ‘literary’ novel, something which got lost in the stoush over semantics.  What was interesting to her, was the giant unseen apparatus that survives on generating interest in the award, something that all of us Booker observers love to see.  I mean, what would a Booker shortlist be without some sort of controversy?

While a thoughtful debate, it wasn’t quite as lively as it might have been.  Perhaps we needed Jeanette Winterson on stage too.  Now that would have been interesting!

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