Master of the Downbeat


by Julian Barnes
Knopf, 227 pp., $25.00
ITV Global/Kobal Collection
Michael Redgrave as Jack Worthing and Margaret Rutherford as Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest, 1952

In Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) Miss Prism says of her three-volume novel, “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.” When Miss Prism composed this work—presumably at least twenty-eight years earlier, before she unfortunately left it in a perambulator, and the baby in a handbag at Victoria Station—this rule prevailed. Readers of Dickens, Trollope, and their contemporaries, after suffering through many misfortunes and hardships with heroes and heroines, could usually expect a happy ending.

As time passed, Miss Prism’s Rule began to be challenged. Today only genre fiction usually ends happily, though often after generous helpings of death and violence, or a great deal of jealousy, despair, and damage to female clothing (hence the colloquial term “bodice-ripper”). Best sellers typically have an upbeat conclusion that nevertheless leaves the hero and heroine somewhat tired and regretful as a result of the terrible events they have lived through. As in the Victorian novel, it is often the case that the happier the principal characters are at the beginning, the worse are the things that will occur to them later, though they may be partially rewarded at the end. Even if they do not survive they may be portrayed as looking down benevolently from heaven at the material and emotional contentment of the other good people in the book.

Literary fiction, however, now tends to conform to Tom Stoppard’s addition to Miss Prism’s Rule, first stated in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966): “The bad end unhappily, the good unluckily. That is what tragedy means.” The scale of the tragedy, of course, varies widely. When we begin a story by a known and admired writer in a known and admired journal, we do not always expect a major disaster, but we know that something unpleasant is going to happen to the main characters, and/or that they will end up understanding something unpleasant about themselves, their friends or family, or the world in general. (Years ago, a Harvard student called Speed Lamkin described the latter tales to me as “stupid little realization stories.”*)

Julian Barnes’s previous collection of short fiction, The Lemon Table (2004), had a common theme: the discomforts and dissatisfactions of aging. As Diane Johnson perceptively observed in this magazine, all of these stories end more or less sadly; the best the characters can hope for is a wry acceptance of their losses. Actually, this view of life is somewhat skewed. Yes, we will all eventually die, usually with pain, fear, and regret, but before that many other things will happen to us. Even old age often has pleasures and compensations: freedom from routine work, time to enjoy nature and travel and read good writers—Julian Barnes, for instance.

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