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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.

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