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That is So! That is So!

The Sense of an Ending
By Julian Barnes
(Knopf, 163 pp., $23.95)

Is it worth it? Life, I mean—is it worth it? Julian Barnes isn’t sure. “I am certainly melancholic myself,” he says in Nothing to Be Frightened Of, a memoir-cum-meditation-on-death, “and sometimes find life an overrated way of passing the time.” Martha Cochrane, in England, England, thinks about “the thinness of life, or at least life as she had known it, or chosen it.” “She had done little in her time,” Jean Serjeant thinks in Staring at the Sun, and Gregory, her son, had done less. “But why should he do anything?” she asks. “Because it’s the only life he’ll get?” Then there are two of Barnes’s favorite quotations: “Birth, and Copulation, and Death”—T.S. Eliot’s summary of the business (though the second term, in Barnes as in Eliot, is often as joyful as the word suggests); and “By dint of saying ‘That is so! That is so!’ and of gazing down into the black pit at one’s feet, one remains calm”—Flaubert this time, Barnes’s master, where the pit is less death than the meaninglessness of life in a God-empty world.

And so to The Sense of an Ending, Barnes’s latest, a book of undeniable but fairly modest merits I’d place no higher than sixth among his eleven novels. The story follows a familiar pattern: call it the missing middle. Tony Webster, the protagonist, reflects upon his life from the vantage point of late middle age. We hear a lot about his youth: his friend Adrian Finn, a sort of schoolboy Wittgenstein, all moral scrupulosity and logical precision; Tony’s first, unhappy love affair at university with a frosty young woman named Veronica Ford; Adrian and Veronica’s subsequent involvement; Adrian’s methodical and, as it seems, philosophical suicide. Then a couple of pages take us through the whole of Tony’s adulthood: marriage, job, child, divorce, retirement-a great blank at the center of his story, as if, after all, there isn’t much to say. “Some achievements and some disappointments,” he concludes with a Barnesian shrug. “That’s a life, isn’t it?”

Geoffrey Braithwaite in Flaubert’s Parrot, Martha in England, England, George in Arthur and George, Gregory in Staring at the Sun (an underrated book that is, in my view, Barnes’s best) all follow the same pattern. Their stories jump from youth to age (or start there, in Braithwaite’s case), skipping the action, the bustle, the crowded scenes and feelings of adulthood. Barnes seems to have been born old (which may be why he has spent his life obsessed with death). His books, so many of them, are not coming-of-age novels but, at least eventually, being-old ones, a choice that cants the whole topography of structure and action and value. His narratives enact a Flaubertian recusal from life—not a filling of the self with experience but an emptying out of it. Even Metroland, his first book, which is a coming-of-age novel, describes a failure to fulfill the promise of the form. Chris, the young protagonist, decamps from Metroland, his bland suburban belt, goes off to Paris in high expectation, then quickly winds up back where he began, an early husband, father, and householder, middle-aged before his time. That’s a life, isn’t it?

Staring at the Sun begins with a sunrise and ends with a sunset. Arthur and George begins with a chapter called “Beginnings,” ends with another called “Endings,” and places between them a couple called “Beginning with an Ending” and “Ending with a Beginning.” Nothing to Be Frightened Of is all about endings, and so, it seems to tell us, is The Sense of an Ending. Barnes is not interested, much, in the middle of life; he is interested in the parts that come before and after, when you look at the middle and ponder it. Before as much as after: in Staring at the Sun, and again in England, England, Barnes begins by evoking, with beautiful delicacy and reticence, the world of childhood enchantment—the mystery, but also the vivid immediacy, the sense that there is no place but here and no time but now. Is this how childhood really is? Maybe not, but it is how we like to re-imagine it. It is, in other words, the childhood of adulthood, adulthood returned to childhood, and so both childhood and adulthood at the same time.

A-B-A: that is Barnes’s favorite structure. Three parts, the third returning somehow to the first. Metroland-Paris-Metroland. Youth-adulthood-age. Beginning-middle-end. But you never can go home again, and so it’s really A-B-A’. You return, instead, to a place that is shadowed by your memory of what it was, and your passage through the middle. In Talking It Over and its sequel, Love, etc., a brilliant set of interlacing monologues that trace the deformations of a love triangle, Gillian starts with Stuart, lets herself be lured away by their best friend, Oliver, then winds up back a decade later—sort of, and sort of hideously, and in the very same house where they started, though everything is different, A-B-A’—with Stuart. “I made the mistake of thinking that was the end of the story,” Stuart says of their initial union, “when it was only the beginning.” Barnes’s novels work by recursion, returning and returning and returning to the same images, phrases, motifs, building up their meanings like layers of lacquer. Barnes’s novels work like puzzles, revealing, slowly, figures latent all along. In their ends are their beginnings.

THERE IS something very English about all of this, in a lot of ways, and no coincidence. Ever since Chris went off from Metroland to see if they order matters better in France, Barnes has been a self-consciously English writer. “I’m constantly going into churches,” he remarks in Nothing to Be Frightened Of, “... to get a sense of what Englishness once was.” Those sepia childhoods he portrays are classic country-village childhoods (contemporary London doesn’t much excite him), and Staring at the Sun begins with a Royal Air Force pilot dodging Nazis over the Channel. The Arthur in Arthur and George is Arthur Conan Doyle; the novel impersonates an Edwardian point of view—its diction, its sensibility—to tell an Edwardian story. Oliver, the idle aesthete in Talking it Over and Love, etc., resembles a compound of Oscar Wilde and Bertie Wooster. Most English of all is Barnes’s cardiganed style: laced with wit and color when he wishes—his control of tone is absolute—but mainly impeccably wry, dry, modulated, muted, precise.

Yet Barnes knows that Englishness is no longer innocent. It has become a commodity: a brand, a set of images, a simulacrum. Robin Hood, Shakespeare, Big Ben, Yorkshire pudding (Kate and William, Downton Abbey, Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy)--or, for that matter, Sherlock Holmes, Bertie Wooster, Oscar Wilde, the RAF, the countryside, the Edwardians. “Heritage England,” they call it; England pretending to be itself. Or others pretending to be English: the Scotsman Conan Doyle, as Arthur and George explains; or George Edalji, the Anglican Parsi solicitor whose reputation he saves (the novel is based on a true story); or Oscar Wilde. That’s the point of England, England, a slightly futuristic satire about a theme park on the Isle of Wight that manages to stuff the whole history into a few square miles (they even hire away the royal family), ultimately displacing the other island altogether. But Barnes denies us the metaphysical comfort of counterposing an authentic England to the crass fake. “To get a sense of what Englishness once was”: once was, but is no more, so how can you recover it? The novel begins in England; moves to “England, England,” the theme park; and finally returns to “Anglia,” as the old country is now called. A-B-A’. Anglia is what England became, we’re told, after England, England sucked the tourist dollars out of it—a country that’s reverted, bit by bit, to a willfully pre-modern state. Horses return for transport, fountain pens for communication. The stocks are reintroduced, and policemen on bicycles. Hares and hedgerows flourish. The Heptarchy is back.

Martha, the protagonist, is back as well, after a long sojourn abroad. She lives in a village now, as she did as a girl—a village where everyone is studiously impersonating their idea of a villager. The schoolmaster used to be an antiquarian dealer. The blacksmith, Jez Harris, is the former Jack Oshinsky of Milwaukee. The villagers decide to hold a fête, with a May Queen and a three-legged race and a pageant of characters dressed as Queen Victoria, Lord Nelson, Snow White. Martha gazes on from a distance, that contemplative distance of Barnesian late middle age. What interests her most are the children, at the other end of life: “they had not yet reached the age of incredulity, only of wonder; so that even when they disbelieved, they also believed.” Believing and disbelieving: this, Barnes suggests, is the only pathway back to Englishness, or to the past in any sense. Not the cynicism of England, England, but not nothing, either. An attempt, instead, to walk the line between incredulity and wonder, to squint a little and do your best, knowing that even if it’s never enough, at least it’s something.

Barnes’s prose here does the same: “Most afternoons Martha would unlatch the back door, stir the ducks to fussy flapping as she crossed the green, and take the bridle path to Gibbet Hill.... The landscape she surveyed was buff and bistre, ash and nettle, dun and roan, slate and bottle.” The lulling rhythms, the folktale props: this is storybook stuff, and reminds us that the appearance of children at the end of the novel is no accident. England being the great land of children’s literature, from Alice in Wonderland to Harry Potter and many points before and between (the well that Barnes is drawing from in all those evocations), one might almost say that the notion of Englishness and the notion of childhood are intertwined. There is something English in our image of childhood, something to do with children in our image of Englishness. Are intertwined, but also analogous, for childhood bears the same relation to our fallen state as Englishness does: something that is never present as the thing itself, something whose essence can only be imperfectly recalled or even only simulated, so that looking at either, we do indeed become like grown-ups reading a children’s book, attempting to enchant ourselves with the memory of enchantment.

ALSO ENGLISH, at least to Barnes, is the whole desire to return—or at least to return home. (It is certainly not American. We cross the ocean, light out for the territories. We don’t much think of coming back.) The point, in fact, is to pretend you’ve never left, not just to resist change, upheaval, unfamiliarity, but to deny them altogether. As George Edalji thinks, “This has happened, now let us forget about it and carry on as before: such was the English way. Something was wrong, something was broken, but now it has been repaired, so let us pretend that nothing much was wrong in the first place.” All this as opposed to France, the great other of Barnes’s imagination (Cross Channel, a collection of stories, and Something to Declare, a book of essays, both consider the Anglo-French relationship), which likes to see itself as the country of revolutions.

For Gregory in Staring at the Sun, the desire to remain at home is quite literal:

Gregory had never wanted to travel: perhaps having been carted round England at an early age had something to do with it. He made the occasional trip, never more than a hundred miles or so, to see what life was like away from where he lived. It seemed very much the same. Travel made you tired, it made you fretful, it flattered you. People said that travel broadened the mind. Gregory didn’t believe this. What it did was give the illusion of broadening the mind. For Gregory, what broadened the mind was staying at home.

The paragraph does what it says. It starts at home, goes out into the world to take a look, then comes back home again. Now let us forget about it and carry on as before. The prose is deeply unimpressed, and resolutely unexcited. It refuses to run away with itself. A little sentence, a little sentence, careful, careful—always cautious, calm, contained. The tone bespeaks the thought: nothing much to see out there. Life is overrated; life is no big deal. Let the others make a fuss.

But Barnes is not Gregory. He knows that whether we like it or not, time takes us away from home, from childhood, from “what Englishness once was.” With all of his thwarted returns, A-B-A’, it is hardly a surprise that one of Barnes’s most consistent subjects is nostalgia. Nostalgia, etymologically, means the pain of knowing that you can’t go home. Nostalgia: the modern condition, as history drags us along, but also, perhaps, a particularly English one. Why Heritage England? Why “Olde England”? England is the only country to give birth to colonies, a whole family of them, that grew up to be more modern than itself. Places in whose eyes, and thus inevitably its own eyes, it became, in the fullest sense, the old country, a country uniquely engulfed by its past—and also, as the most recent empire to fall, uniquely diminished by it. The old country, or maybe we should say, the late-middle-aged country, looking back across the years before its last ebb of strength and dreaming of return.

“Nostalgia of a truer kind,” Barnes calls this, “not for what you knew, or thought you had known, as a child, but for what you could never have known.” The village green, the little church, the glowing hearth: all those things we wish we could get back to, even though we’ve never been there in the first place. But the treacheries of memory are such that what we know and what we might as well have never known are not distinct. Martha, as a child, finds a leaf in the house. Her father, who has left, was always tracking them in. She saves it in a book, a talisman of his return. A lifetime later, she finds it again:

She must have picked it up, all those years ago, and kept it for a specific purpose: to remind herself, on just such a day as this, of just such a day as that. Except, what was the day? The prompt did not work: no memory of joy, success, or simple contentment returned, no flash of sunlight through the trees, no house-martin flicking under eaves, no smell of lilacs.

The Englishman Barnes creates a failed madeleine. But it’s worse than Martha thinks, because she isn’t even on the right track. She can’t remember what she can’t remember. It’s worse than we think, too. That flash of sunlight, house-martin, lilac smell, which seem so sharply etched, so freshly observed: what are they here if not another set of icons, another Queen Victoria or Lord Nelson—clichés of authenticity, not the thing itself?

IT IS WITH the betrayals of memory that The Sense of an Ending concerns itself. The novel begins with a handful of scattered recollections, almost none of which—this seems to be the point—are notably significant. Then Tony, the protagonist, settles down to tell us his stories: about his school days with Adrian, his brilliant classmate; about a weekend being frozen out by Veronica, his college girlfriend, and most of the rest of her family; about Adrian’s letter asking Tony’s permission, later, to date Veronica; about Adrian’s suicide and Tony’s attempt to understand it. But even as he goes, he warns us about the reliability of what he calls his “anecdotes”—“approximate memories which time has deformed into certainty.” This slender book, in fact, is rather overloaded with enunciations. Adrian’s precocity consists of recognizing the insubstantiality of history: “there is one line of thought according to which all you can truly say of any historical event ... is that ‘something happened’”; “we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us”; “history is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation”—a trio of pronouncements that pretty much map out the rest of the novel.

The rest of the novel begins when Tony, forty years later, is contacted by a solicitor. Veronica’s mother, the only one who had been kind to him that weekend, has left him a bequest: some money, a note, and Adrian’s diary. At last, it seems, some documentation—though why Veronica’s mother, of all people, should have wound up with Adrian’s diary seems odd-something to explain the suicide and bring the past a little closer. But Veronica refuses to disgorge the thing, and the second half of the book consists of Tony’s efforts to outmaneuver his spidery old adversary, and the revelations that they draw him into.

Plus, of course, his thoughts about it all. Barnes’s novels always contain a large allowance of reflection. Indeed, reflection often seems to be the point. His characters will make a little foray into life, a little raid on life, then scurry back to their den to gnaw it over. His books are philosophical excursions, though “philosophical” is perhaps too grand a word. They are Montaigne, not Kant. Call them meditations, softened to the texture of ordinary thought by their way of edging up to philosophical questions—the nature of time, or love, or the meaning of life, or above all, death—of gripping them and letting them go. They are wistful, or playful, or mordant, or wise; they enter into dialogue with themselves. At his best—and by his best I mean Staring at the Sun, Flaubert’s Parrot, and parts of England, England—reflection dissolves back into story, becomes itself the story, the mind moving through time to its inevitable end.

REFLECTION—NOT THINKING so much as looking—is Barnes’s ideal, the bravest response to life, to death. “By dint of saying ‘That is so! That is so!’ and of gazing down into the black pit at one’s feet, one remains calm.” This, for Tony, was Adrian’s great virtue. Even at school, he “was already looking farther ahead and wider around. He felt life more clearly too—even, perhaps especially, when he came to decide that it wasn’t worth the candle.” He looked things in the face; he didn’t try to kid himself. If Barnes’s prose is contained, then what it is containing is just this—this knowledge, this terror, this sorrow. With none of Flaubert’s contempt but all of his white-knuckled frankness, he gazes at the pit as well. Or tries to. You can’t really gaze at the pit—that would be like staring at the sun—but you can hold your fingers up and do your best.

Yet reflection is never simple. The truth is this, the truth is that: how is one to tell? If Barnes works in threes, he also works in twos, the two sides to every question, one interpretation rivaling another. Was Flaubert’s parrot the one at the hospital or the one at the house? Is Stuart’s perspective correct, in Talking it Over and Love, etc., or is it Oliver’s? Arthur saves George from the false theory that has put him in prison for a series of grisly crimes, only to be made to realize that the counter-narrative that he deduces in its stead is equally conjectural, a Sherlock Holmes performance that can’t withstand the equivocality of real life. “There were two explanations of everything,” thinks Miss Logan in A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, a book that’s built around dichotomies like clean and unclean, male and female, saved and damned. “Each required the exercise of faith.” “This dilemma,” the narrator adds, “was to preoccupy Miss Logan for years to come.” Not a dialectic, but a dilemma: you have to choose, and the choice is arbitrary.

So Tony reflects. And for all that we know about the capriciousness of judgment, and all that he warns us about the imperfections of memory, we believe what he has to tell us. We believe it, because he believes it himself—because we all believe our memory and judgment, no matter how many times we tell ourselves how fallible they are. What else can we do? So Veronica is creepy, and her family are snobs, and Tony was a naïf when he knew them. But then Veronica supplies a document of irrefutable authority—a letter, from back in the day, in Tony’s own hand—and everything tips over. It is a brilliant stroke on Barnes’s part; here, as always, he is a master of narrative form. Tony is condemned out of his own mouth. His old interpretations crumble—his understanding of the past, and of the present, too; his understanding of himself. And then he finds out something else, or thinks he does, and then, something else, and every time he has to try to find his footing once again. The novel becomes a succession of collapsing certainties, until at last we don’t know what, in psychological or moral terms, to think. That is the sense of the title: that we cannot make sense of the ending.

Tony is an unreliable narrator, yes, but he’s not unreliable in the normal—which is to say, the abnormal—way. He’s not cracked or creepy or especially obtuse, like Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man or Humbert Humbert or John Dowell in The Good Soldier. He’s unreliable because we all are (and his story left me just a bit more humble about the certainties of my own memory, and rather less likely to dig out any old letters anytime soon). Still, it all seems overblown. What Tony’s letter reveals about him is not nearly as terrible as he, and Barnes, appear to imagine. The light cast on his words by subsequent events hardly shows him to be the wretch he ends up thinking he is. His significance to Adrian’s later story—and Veronica’s, and her family’s—remains decidedly marginal.

And yet the most interesting thing about the novel may be the way it shows its author reflecting on the ideal of reflection itself. A process which normally acts in Barnes to create distance, to keep experience at arm’s length, ends up sucking the protagonist back into experience. It doesn’t lead to clarity, or urbanity, or peace, as it does for Geoffrey Braithwaite or Martha Cochrane. It leads to pain and confusion. Tony’s original sin was not this or that letter, this or that word. It was the whole reason he broke up with Veronica in the first place. He didn’t want to have to think about where their relationship was headed. He called himself peaceable; she called him cowardly. And so it would be in the years to come. “I had wanted life not to bother me too much,” he sums up, “and had succeeded.” Barnes, it seems, is mounting a critique of Barnesianism. Adrian and Veronica and Veronica’s mother—they had all been over there, alive and suffering. Tony had been over here, protecting himself. He had been passive, he had been careful, he had given up on life. He had avoided being hurt, had allowed himself to settle for contentment. That’s a life, isn’t it? No, it turns out; it is not.

William Deresiewicz is a contributing editor at The New Republic. This article appeared in the March 15, 2012 issue of the magazine.