Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Barnes Books

Julian Barnes took the title of "The Sense Of An Ending" from a 1967 book by Frank Kermode, which disappointed me.  I was hoping the title referred to Barnes' own feeling in writing this lean, mean, 150-page masterpiece.  As in, Barnes hit the 150-page mark and suddenly thought, "hey, I was going to keep going, but man, I'm starting to sense that I should end this.  This would be just perfect if I stopped now.  That's it!  Print!  I'm getting myself some tea!"  Then he dusted his hands off in triumph and left the room.

There are no wasted words in Barnes' novel (almost a novella) and it adds up to some of the most enjoyable reads I've had in a while.  The short length adds to the impact --- a jab can do just as much damage as haymaker, after all.

Without getting into spoilers, the basic set-up is this.  The first 50-odd pages are Tony reminiscing about his adolescent school days come four decades in the past, with the chief elements being his relationship with an oddity of a girl named Veronica* and his friend Adrian's suicide.  The second part is set in the present day when Tony suddenly has reason to reintroduce himself to Veronica and…well, I won't even say anything else.  Let's just say his memories are not quite as they appeared, though it's more out of simply forgetting than it is malice.

* = one of the most interesting creations of the Barnes oeuvre.  The scene where she suddenly springs to life and experiments with dancing would be a killer moment in a movie, though I'm not sure a film version of TSOAE would really work given how much of the novel's power comes from vague memories.  Actually seeing the events on screen would remove the foggy recollection that Tony drapes over things.  Veronica, for instance, comes off as mysterious and inscrutable since that's how Tony (an inexperienced and grope-y teenager at the time) saw his first girlfriend.  There's evidence that Veronica, especially in her later years, is indeed an eccentric character yet as is revealed, she has strong reasons for acting this way towards Tony.

I love mysteries that don't even reveal themselves as mysteries until you're well into the text.  An Agatha Christie novel, for instance, is entirely built and structured so that you're "looking for clues" the entire time, and a Christie book is less a novel than it is a puzzle.  Since you aren't consciously looking for clues in TSOAE's first portion, however, you're forced to re-examine things only through your memory of the events (not unlike Tony himself). 

TSOAE is a mystery of human behaviour, not a crime mystery.  Detective stories have a clear Macguffin at their center (who's the murderer, who stole the jewels, etc.) whereas both and Tony and the reader aren't even really sure of what they're trying to find for much of the way.  Barnes, by the way, used to write crime novels under the pen name of "Dan Kavanagh," and I'll be damned if I can find any of those things still in print.  I'd love to read them both because I love Barnes' writing and because after this novel and the next one I'm going to mention, I'm super-interested in seeing what a more conventional crime novel would look like from this author.    


"Arthur & George" also isn't a mystery since everyone with any flicker of historical knowledge already knows how the case resolves itself.  That is, of course, unless you're bereft of a flicker.  This is when my self-imposed rule about not knowing anything about a book until I'm reading it really adds to the experience, in theory.  I didn't realize who "Arthur" actually was until it became patently obvious, and I'd never heard of "George" at all though his case was one of the most famous in English legal history. 

While my own dawning realization added a sense of where-is-Barnes-going-with-this excitement, I feel that reading it with fresh eyes 'may' have left me a bit in the dark about some of the historical details and the true depth of what Barnes was attempting here.  That said, A&G works on both levels --- for the learned it's a wonderful piece of historical fiction, and for the ig'nant, it's almost like fiction unto itself.  For the uninitiated, Barnes builds the character of Arthur so you have a sense of who he is before dropping the big "ohhh, THAT Arthur" bomb (at least it was a revelation to dullards like me).  This is a necessary tactic since this version of Arthur ends up sharing a lot of traits as his most famous literary creation, so it's important for Barnes to clearly note that Arthur is not [NAME REDACTED FOR SPOILER PURPOSES] and [NAME REDACTED FOR SPOILER PURPOSES] is not Arthur. 

What A&G really does is force me into reading "Flaubert's Parrot," an earlier Barnes novel that is arguably considered to be his best.  Even though I'm a big Barnes fan, I've avoided reading this one simply because since I know nothing about Flaubert, I felt most of the references will be lost on me.  Now I think I'll have to track it down since a) I thoroughly enjoyed A&G without knowing anything about the actual historical case and b) it's unlikely I'll *ever* know a lot about Flaubert, so why deprive myself of a great book due to my own ignorance?


Quick, a Julian Barnes novel ranking!

7. England, England….satire of English culture that is just a bit too cutely obvious and one-to-one for my liking.  Also, since I'm not English, very possible that a lot of the meaning was lost on my Canadian self.  So much for being part of the colonies.

6. Metroland….somewhat of a coming-of-age story that, come to think of it, resembles the opening segment of Sense Of An Ending.  I don't remember much of Metroland, to be honest, so I may have to revisit this novel at some point.

5. Arthur & George

4. Love, etc.
3. Talking It Over…..These are two parts of the same story.  Barnes wrote TIO in 1991 and then LE in 2001, following the same love triangle 10 years later.  I rate TIO just a bit higher since it was the first instalment and seemed a bit fresher, but LE also have an absolute gut-punch of an ending.  I'm really hoping Barnes is prepping another sequel to revisit these characters again this decade, though the ending of LE perhaps casts a pall on such a novel.

2. The Sense Of An Ending

1. A History Of The World In 10 1/2 Chapters….okay, maybe this is a bit of a cheat since you could argue that this is really a short story collection, but screw it, I straight-up love this book.

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