Going Beyond the Limits

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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 …

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