Going Beyond the Limits


English writers have come to describe awkwardness with a great tender ease. When their characters wear the wrong clothes, for example, or are members of the wrong class, this can appear as deep, almost spiritual, unsettlement. The sentences used to describe moments, or indeed hours and years, of inglorious discomfort remain, however, in the work of Julian Barnes, elegant, careful, and stylish. It is as though the prose represents the ordered noise that society makes, or indeed the sound of the reader’s judgment, all the more to emphasize the inner and disordered fear of the male protagonist as he lives in a state of vast uneasiness.

Philip Larkin has an unfinished poem from the early 1960s called “The Dance” in which the main character “in the darkening mirror sees/The shame of evening trousers, evening tie” and then, on arrival in the dancehall, finds himself edging “along the noise/Towards a trestled bar, lacking the poise/To look about me.” He soon wonders what he is doing in public at all when he could be “really drinking, or in bed,/Or listening to records.” When he sees the object of his desire, he wishes “desperately for qualities/Moments like this demand, and which I lack.” Later he feels “How right/I should have been to keep away.” The poem enacts a strange, awkward, and deeply felt melancholy, but the tone, the phrasing, the use of stanza form and rhyme are controlled, almost magisterial. While the self is in retreat, the poem is full of command. While the poem is oddly consoling, the self is unconsoled. This unresolved tension gives Larkin’s poems the same insistent and ambiguous power that we find in Barnes’s fiction.

It is strange how much Larkin’s images of disillusion, fear, and self-betrayal have come to seem communal rather than personal, how the England he imagined—the drinking, the absences, the lost love, and the daily dread—have etched themselves into the general image of things. Thus many writers who dramatize English life have to tackle not only the substance of the world they inhabit or imagine, but the persistent shadows that Larkin left. While this has happened elsewhere—in Burns’s Scotland, for example, or Whitman’s America, or Yeats’s Ireland—it has come as a release, or a way of opening up the world. In the case of Larkin’s England, it comes with the sense of an ending, or, as he put it at the conclusion of “The Whitsun Weddings,” “somewhere becoming rain.”

In Julian Barnes’s novel The Sense of an Ending, which won the 2011 Man Booker Prize, the spirit of Larkin, his grumpy old ghost, is at times openly acknowledged. When the narrator describes his relationship to Veronica, the woman whom he lost in love when he was young, he feels a need, since sexual mores have changed, to explain what these mores once were:

Veronica wasn’t very different from other girls of the time. They were physically comfortable with you, took your arm in public, kissed you until the colour rose, and might consciously press their breasts against you as long as there were about five layers of clothing between flesh and flesh…. And then, as the relationship continued, there were certain implicit trade-offs, some based on whim, others on promise and commitment—up to what the poet called “a wrangle for a ring.”

The poet is Larkin and the phrase “a wrangle for a ring” occurs in his poem “Annus Mirabilis”:

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(Which was rather late for me)—
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.
Up till then there’d only been
A sort of bargaining,
A wrangle for a ring,
A shame that started at sixteen
And spread to everything.

Later in the novel, as the narrator considers the difference between himself and his dead friend Adrian and then the whole idea of life and experience as a sort of accumulation, he writes: “And as the poet pointed out, there is a difference between addition and increase.” Once more, the poet is Larkin and the lines come from “Dockery and Son,” in which Larkin considers his own childlessness against the idea of Dockery, his old schoolmate, having a son:

Why did he think adding meant increase?
To me it was dilution.

Toward the end of the novel the narrator also quotes “the poet”: “May you be ordinary, as the poet once wished the newborn baby.” The phrase comes from Larkin’s poem “Born Yesterday.”

The narrator writes with a resigned wisdom, sometimes grim, sometimes mild. The past interests him, but there is nothing much to be learned from it. Such knowledge and acceptance in themselves are a sort of gain, and offer the novelist and the narrator room to muse in a book that is, more than anything else, a meditation on time and futility:

In those days, we imagined ourselves as being kept in some kind of holding pen, waiting to be released into our lives. And when that moment came, our lives—and time itself—would speed up. How were we to know that our lives had in any case begun, that some advantage had already been gained, some damage already inflicted?

This damage is further contemplated later: “I certainly believe we all suffer damage: one way or another…. And then there is the question, on which so much depends, of how we react to the damage, whether we admit it or repress it, and how this affects our dealings with others.” Later, in a letter that is quoted, our narrator warns his friend Adrian about Veronica, tells him to “ask her [Mum] about damage a long way back.”

For much of the book, the narrator ponders the poetics of loss, what it meant to have a girlfriend who left him for his best friend, and what the years have done to those memories. At times the memories have been sharpened, as in the scene where he remembers a visit to Veronica’s house, when she had left him in his single room: “I now remember, I was wanking into the little washbasin and sluicing my sperm down the house’s pipework.” On one occasion, he opens “an old photo album and looked at the picture [Veronica] asked me to take in Trafalgar Square.”

All of these images have echoes in Larkin, from his “Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album” to the lines “Something is pushing them/To the side of their own lives,” from “Afternoons,” to the end of “Dockery and Son”: “Life is first boredom, then fear./Whether or not we use it, it goes.” But more than anything, as he contemplates his own solitary present and the woman he lost, the narrator allows echoes of a poem that Larkin did not publish in his lifetime, perhaps his most searing and painfully personal poem, “Love Again,” which begins: “Love again: wanking at ten past three” and includes a reference to damage done years before that is at the root of much misery and sexual jealousy:

Something to do with violence
A long way back, and wrong rewards,
And arrogant eternity.

Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending is narrated in late middle age by Tony Webster. The story begins at a school in central London, where three friends are joined by a fourth, Adrian Finn, who “allowed himself to be absorbed into our group, without acknowledging that it was something he sought.” The boys are clever and curious; Adrian is the smartest and the most admired. The narrator recalls their antics and their conversations with a precise detachment added to a sort of fondness and tolerance for the ways things were:

When the rest of us tried provocation, it was dismissed as puerile cynicism—something else we would grow out of. Adrian’s provocations were somehow welcomed as awkward searchings after truth.

After school, the boys go their separate ways. Three of them go to university, Adrian winning a scholarship to Cambridge. They try to keep in touch, most of all with Adrian. “We wanted his attention, his approval; we courted him, and told him our best stories first; we each thought we were—and deserved to be—closest to him.” The narrator finds a girlfriend, Veronica Ford, whose surname may be a sly homage to the author of The Good Soldier, which, like The Sense of an Ending, is a sad story told years later by a man who missed the point of certain things as they occurred. As Barnes has written of the narrator of Ford Madox Ford’s novel:

It’s a story in which he has actively—and passively—participated, been in up to his ears, eyes, neck, heart and guts…. We must prowl soft-footed through this text, alive for every board’s moan and plaint.

There are moments in Barnes’s novel that have the same plaintive tone, the same clear-eyed, sad, regretful way of seeing what happened, looking at every nuance to find a clue to its meaning, a clue that was absent all the years before. When Tony introduced Veronica to his friends and they had a photo taken, for example, he notices years later that she did not wear high heels. He wonders if this was a trick:

Though whether she went in for tricks is a question I still haven’t resolved. When I was going out with her, it always seemed that her actions were instinctive. But then I was resistant to the whole idea that women were or could be manipulative. This may tell you more about me than it does about her. And even if I were to decide, at this late stage, that she was and always had been calculating, I’m not sure it would help matters. By which I mean: help me.

As Tony is invited to meet Veronica’s family, the real English awkwardness begins. Just as the young hero of L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between (1953) remembers events of years earlier when he felt awkward going to the house of a posh friend, Tony remembers his suitcase:

On the train down from Charing Cross, I worried that my suitcase—the only one I owned—was so large it made me look like a potential burglar. At the station, Veronica introduced me to her father, who opened the boot of his car, took the suitcase from my hand, and laughed.

This visit of a young person to the home of a grander or more stylish friend, handled with such tenderness by Hartley and indeed Evelyn Waugh in Brideshead Revisited (1945), has become, oddly enough, one of the mainstays of contemporary fiction. “Shadings of class,” as Barnes’s narrator says, “resist time longer than differentials in age.” No novel, it seems, is complete without the terror, the comedy, and the social awkwardness of such a visit to a posh house. It appears in Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, for example, and has made its way also to the east coast of the United States where it occurs in Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot and Edmund White’s Jack Holmes and His Friend. In these three novels and Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending the young visitor also would like to sleep with his posh (or posher than he is) friend, but to no avail. It is as though sexual rejection must come as something deserved to members of the lower orders; it is part of their ordeal. Those in the class above have things less sordid than sexual desire on their minds, or they manage a natural insouciance that comes, it seems, with being posh, or they have a way to express themselves sexually without the reader having to witness too much of the worry.

Barnes rises to this occasion in ways that are amusing and interesting. “I was so ill at ease,” his narrator tells us, “that I spent the entire weekend constipated: this is my principal factual memory.” (This failure of the bowels to function under the pressure of a new social adventure also occurs, it should be said, in Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot.) On his return home, Tony remembers: “I had a bloody long good shit.”

The plot of the book shifts now as Veronica drops Tony and begins to go out with Adrian. When he hears the news, Tony writes a priggish letter to Adrian. Having traveled abroad, he finds on his return that Adrian has committed suicide.1

In a brisk paragraph, the narrator tells us how the rest of his own life proceeded. He found a job, got married, got a mortgage, had a child, got divorced, had some affairs, lived alone in the way of l’homme moyen sensuel that he has been all along. Such a man, of course, is made to fade into obscurity, or to become the narrator of a novel, a novel in which he is acted upon rather than acts, in which he is deceived rather than deceives. The very weakness of his will, the low temperature at which he keeps his masculinity, allows him to suffer and notice and then find a style suitably elegant, elegiac, and affecting in which to tell his story, express his surprise at the antics of others. His story, he suggests, is not much:

I’m retired now. I have my flat with my possessions…. A while ago, I volunteered to run the library at the local hospital; I go round the wards delivering, collecting, recommending. It gets me out, and it’s good to do something useful; also, I meet some new people. Sick people, of course; dying people as well. But at least I shall know my way around the hospital when my turn comes.
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.

The past is a warlike country, and as our narrator settles into this contented late middle age, a letter comes to say that he has been left a small amount of money and two documents by Veronica’s mother, whom he has not seen since he lodged in her house one weekend all those years before. The documents include a diary in the possession of Veronica, from which she is reluctant to part, and the letter that our narrator wrote his friend Adrian when the news came to him that Adrian and Veronica had become lovers. This means that now Tony will have to meet Veronica again, and deal with the past, and find out what happened. And this is what is dramatized throughout the rest of the novel.

The writing is calm, controlled, convincing; it is also edged with enough irony and self-awareness to lure the reader into a complicity tinged with pleasure. Barnes never exaggerates or pushes a detail further than it might go. His art is artful, often openly so, but never showy or obvious. There is an undertow of wry humor, but the main tone is serious, observant, and deeply intelligent. There is a sense of desperation, but it is tempered; there is guilt and sadness rather than, say, angst. There is a lovely clarity in the phrasing that seems to enact, as the narrator of The Good Soldier does, a new way of seeing, an ability to interpret tentatively that seems close to truth. There are concrete details chosen with a filmmaker’s care, such as when Margaret, the narrator’s wife, checks the bill in the restaurant by “running the corner of her credit card down the items.” There are phrases that might make their way into a dictionary of quotations, such as: “When we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others.”

The problem with the novel is that it is easy to misread it, easy to see the plot as thin and somewhat contrived, easy to see Tony Webster’s disappointment as something that a writer might be inclined to give to a character who was not a writer. In this reading, The Sense of an Ending is a quintessential English novel of its age, well made, low on ambition, and filled with restraint, taking its bearings from the world that Philip Larkin made in his own image.

This is, I think, to misread both the novel and Larkin, to ignore those moments in Larkin’s work that are filled with high risks and light-filled revelation, to read the line “somewhere becoming rain,” for instance, at the end of “The Whitsun Weddings” as an example of dullness rather than of pure open-ended possibility. It is to ignore the tender and hard-won ending of “An Arundel Tomb”: “What will survive of us is love.” And to ignore the last line of “The Trees”: “Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.” And to read in only one way the extraordinary ending of “High Windows”:

And immediately
Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

Barnes in his book Nothing to Be Frightened Of, a meditation on memory and death and the meaning of things, makes clear that his tutelary spirits are French rather than English. He makes, of course, references to Larkin, and gives an account of Larkin on his deathbed saying: “I am going to the inevitable.” Larkin, he adds, “was hardly a Francophile (though more cosmopolitan than he affected).” This aspect of Larkin as “more cosmopolitan than he affected” emerges in a letter Larkin wrote to Barnes in October 1984, a year before his death. Knowing the views of the old curmudgeon, it is easy to imagine how much Larkin would have deplored Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot. Instead he wrote to say that he “couldn’t put it down” and added: “You [have] written a most extraordinary and haunting book I dread trying to reread, for fear it won’t work a second time.”

“What’s the point,” Barnes wrote in an essay in these pages on Ford Madox Ford, “of writing a French novel in English, you might roughly ask.”2 The answer Barnes offered is that Ford took what he needed from French novelists in order to write what is actually an English novel. The Sense of an Ending, on the other hand, takes what it needs from the English novel—the sense of class, the aura of disappointment, the dull suburbs, the poetics of what-might-have-been, sexual awkwardness, social awkwardness—and uses it as a frame to build another sort of novel, a novel that lets thought in as an almost sensuous act, that allows paragraphs about time and memory to dominate rather than paragraphs about character and motive.

Thus the power of the book, which is strange and subtle, arises not from the depth of character that the narrator displays, or the lure of the story he has to tell, or the twists and turns of plot, or the appearance of many memorable minor characters. If judged by someone in search of these things, the novel is oddly thin and underimagined. On the other hand, there are images offered in the narrative that live outside its confines and seem all the more powerful for that. The description of the Severn Bore, for example, may serve a purpose because it is remembered twice, and the second memory seems to defy the first. But it is the description itself that does the real work:

The river simply seemed to change its mind, and a wave, two or three feet high, was heading towards us, the water breaking across its whole width, from bank to bank. This heaving swell came level with us, surged past, and curved off into the distance…. I don’t think I can properly convey the effect that moment had on me…. It was more unsettling because it looked and felt quietly wrong, as if some small lever of the universe had been pressed, and here, just for these minutes, nature was reversed, and time with it.

“And time with it.” Four words of one syllable, as though time was nothing much. And yet because of the sound of the word “time” against the other, flimsier words (“and,” “with,” “it”), time may be a great deal more solid than we think, or than we imagined. As in Nothing to Be Frightened Of, Barnes is not actually interested in class, or English awkwardness, but is concerned in this novel to find a language and indeed a form in which he can discuss what most preoccupies him, which is our fate on the earth, what it means to have been, or be, alive, or, as Wallace Stevens put it in “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction”: “What am I to believe?”

Barnes wants the novel form to expand, or perhaps contract, to allow him to meditate on these matters in a way that makes sense to him. He wants to take what he calls “our cleansing scepticism” and see how far he can push it. At one moment his narrator muses that “our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life.” Barnes is not a philosopher; he wishes the questions he asks in this novel to belong to one man only, one soul created by a novelist, and the answers, such as they are, to live in one imagined man’s tentative voice. For this reason, he finds fiction useful. He writes in Tony’s voice:

We live in time, it bounds us and defines us, and time is supposed to measure history, isn’t it? But if we can’t understand time, can’t grasp its mysteries of pace and progress, what chance do we have with history—even our own small, personal, largely undocumented piece of it?

Barnes’s skill as a novelist is to make us feel that these thoughts are genuinely occurring to Tony, that they preoccupy him deeply and urgently, and that he has the intelligence and the need, and the command of tone, to attempt to elucidate them. The whole idea of his friend Adrian deciding to end his life by suicide fascinates Tony. Adrian, he writes, “took charge of his own life, he took command of it, he took it in his hands—and then out of them.” Tony, who did not take command, sees what his own life has been: “We muddle along, we let life happen to us, we gradually build up a store of memories.”

Barnes’s novel, then, is not about England or about loss, but it is an attempt to find a language and a formal structure in the novel that will allow one man to make sense of things in the abstract, but also in his own voice. For a novelist with such skills at evoking the particular, who comes from a literary culture that treasures the modest tone and the concrete fact, indeed insists on the primacy of the littleness of life against the exaggeration of art, this requires considerable care. Barnes’s narrator is a man who in Derek Mahon’s phrase “tamed the terrier, trimmed the hedge.” Or as Tony puts it himself: “I mowed my lawn, I took holidays, I had my life.” The novel pays homage to that while attempting to lift the character beyond the limits that his circumstances might suggest while keeping him credible and vulnerable.

The Sense of an Ending is an English novel in its modesty and its calm elegance, but it is more than that in the way it allows thought-filled images to appear about loss and regret and aging and gives them dominant space. It asks the novel to allow thinking into its realms, modest thinking, calm wonderings, sighs and regrets in the face of things. These take the place of action, pattern, resolution, or social observation, and thus make this a strange and oddly powerful book.

  1. 1

    Adrian thus plays the part in the novel that was also played in real life, so to speak, by Barnes’s school friend Alex Brilliant, who, Barnes writes in his book of reflections Nothing to Be Frightened Of, “was better at me in English, and took a scholarship to Cambridge…. I was over fifty when I learnt that…Alex had killed himself—with pills, over a woman—in his late twenties, half my life ago.” 

  2. 2

    ‘O Unforgetting Elephant,’The New York Review, January 9, 1997.