Saturday, February 11, 2012

Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending

I just read that Adam Mars-Jones won the first annual Hatchet Job of the Year Award for his snidely clever review of Michael Cunningham’s novel By Nightfall, beating out, among other worthy (or unworthy, as the case may be) contenders, Geoff Dyer’s diminution of Julian Barnes’ already diminutive novel, The Sense of an Ending, in a review entitled “Julian Barnes and the Diminishing of the English Novel.” The prize was a year’s supply of potted shrimp.

I must admit up front that I have never been a fan of Julian Barnes. I did enjoy his earlier short novel Flaubert’s Parrot, (shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1984), perhaps partly due to my much greater admiration for Flaubert’s story Un coeur simple, in which said parrot lived, died, and was stuffed. I taught Flaubert’s Parrot in a graduate-level course in 20th century British Lit a few years ago. But I did not care much for Barnes’ two collections of short stories, Cross Channel (1996) and The Lemon Table (2004).

Cross Channel is thematically of a piece, all the stories focusing on the British in France, from the seventeenth to the twenty-first century. The stories also share the common characteristic of being grounded as much on historical fact and cultural values as they do on individual characters. As a result they sometimes lean as much toward the essayistic as they do toward story. Although this creates a strong factual context for the stories, giving them a sense of historical reality, it tends to make them focus more on social abstractions than on individuals.

The Lemon Table is obsessed with loss: loss of sexual vitality, loss of creativity, loss of mental acuity, loss of romance. With the exception of one story, “Knowing French,” told in the form of letters to a writer named Julian Barnes from a lonely 81-year-old woman living in an old folks home--a woman who is still alert, intelligent, witty, and full of life--there is very little dignity, reconciliation, comfort, companionship, or other compensations of aging in these stories.

When The Sense of an Ending came out last year, I was not quick to buy it, although I was somewhat intrigued that Barnes had used the same title as that of a book I do much admire, Frank Kermode’s 1967 “Studies in the Theory of Fiction,” being the Mary Flexner Lectures Kermode gave at Bryn Mawr College in Fall 1965. (Brief sidebar here: I had the privilege of attending a Kermode lecture at Trinity College in Dublin fifteen years ago and had to restrain myself from standing and applauding when he blasted the new historicists and cultural critics for their desertion of literature for historical context and polemical politics.) I did not rush out and buy The Sense of an Ending when it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize last year either, especially after the brouhaha resulting from announcements that the shortlist was “readable” and the resulting accusations that the Booker was “dumbing down.”

After being shortlisted three times—always a bridesmaid, never a bride—Julian Barnes walked down the aisle and accepted the Man Booker Prize--50,000 pounds ($79,117.24 in American dollars) for The Sense of an Ending with a snort that he was “as much relieved as delighted,” presumably because, he thought, it was about damned time. In spite of this big win, I still did not feel tempted to add to Barnes’ new wealth by shelling out $23.95 for 163 small pages with big margins and lots of white space. (You may recall, I felt similarly constrained to pinch pennies earlier this year when Farrar, Straus & Giroux released Denis Johnson’s short novel Train Dreams in a slim 116 page volume, contenting myself to go back to my 2003 edition of The O. Henry Prize Stories where it was reprinted from The Paris Review.) I posted my response to Train Dreams in an earlier blog entry.

Then damn all! My wife received a tidy little hardback copy of The Sense of an Ending as a Christmas present from an old friend. So, what could I do? There it was. I had to see what the fuss was about. I sat down, and in a couple of hours, I read it. I was glad I didn’t pay for it. I didn’t like it. I thought it was clich├ęd, clumsy, tedious, pretentious, and just plain ordinary. How in God’s name could this book win the Man Booker Prize? I went back and read the reviews, and that’s when I discovered Geoff Dyer’s so-called “hatchet job” in the December 16 issue of The New York Times. Dyer says he did not “get the book” when he first read it and still didn’t get it when he dutifully reread it after Barnes won the Man Booker and the chair of the judging panel said that there was more to it each time you read it. Dyer sniffed, “To me, there seemed less to get second time around. If such a thing is possible, I didn’t get it even more than I hadn’t got it first time around.”

Arguing that the ideas about memory and history sprinkled throughout what he calls a “very short novel" are “commonplace,” Dyer argues that The Sense of an Ending is not terrible, just rather “average,” concluding: “It is averagely compelling (I finished it), involves an average amount of concentration and, if such a thing makes sense, is averagely well-written: excellent in its averageness.”

In face of this scathing phrase, I had no choice but to read The Sense of an Ending a second time also. Hell, I even went back and read Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending again, thinking maybe I missed some subtle connection that Barnes had in mind. I don’t think so. Kermode’s “sense of an ending” has to do with how endings make possible the transformation of “one damn thing after another” into meaningful fictional patterns. Barnes seems to be interested, as he was in the stories in The Lemon Table, with getting older and trying to make sense of what went before. Not that this is a trivial human mystery and motivation—just that Barnes does not have the ability to go beyond what Dyer rightly calls “commonplace” ruminations about this issue by his not very perceptive protagonist in The Sense of an Ending.

It’s just my opinion, of course, but I suspect that Barnes won the Man Booker for this “average” short novel because, well, it was about time, since Barnes had already been passed over three times, once for the much better book Flaubert’s Parrot. I think Barnes probably knew this also, for when he was asked if he thought The Sense of an Ending was his best book, he hedged by repeating the old authorial saw that he thought his “best” novel was the one he was about to write or has just finished writing, adding, however, “I’m very attached to Flaubert’s Parrot.

Soon after The Sense of an Ending received the Man Booker Prize, The Guardian Books Blog posed the following question: “When is a novel a novella?” Of the several responses to the question, the most thoughtful was by Chris Power, who says he has never liked the word “novella,” because he thought it an “unnecessary distinction that underlines and in some way ratifies this anxiety about size.” He then asks if Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams is a long story or a short novel.” Is the 80-page “Kindness” from Yiyun Li’s Gold Boy, Emerald Girl a very short novel or a very long story? Power asks, responding, “I think it is the latter. The same goes for the title story of Anthony Doerr’s Memory Wall. They are lengthy (for short stories), but they have the focused intensity of short fiction. Would they profit in any way from being called novellas? I don’t think so.”

Eileen Battersby called Yiyun Li’s “Kindness” a “near novella.” Jane Ciabattari called it a “novella.” Most reviewers call it a “long story.” If it had appeared in a single volume, they would probably have called it a “short novel.” In an interview, Joe Fassler asked Li whether she would call “Kindness” a novella or a short story and whether that distinction mattered to her. Li replied that it did not matter, but that when she started writing that piece she knew it would be a longer story. She says she had read William Trevor’s novella The Night at Alexandra, which was in the first person voice of an older man looking back on his youth, and wanted to write something similar in first person, using a woman narrator. Li adds, “When I was in her voice, I noticed that she would gloss over years without saying anything and hen she would go into details, and I think that’s how memory works for her.”

James Wood called Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams a novella. The central character Robert Granier is a loner, like the 41-year-old woman Moyan in Yiyun’s Li’s novella. In his review of Train Dreams, Anthony Doerr calls the story a novella, terming it a “small masterpiece.” Doerr argues that it is the “totality” of the work, as Poe used that term to describe the short story as a form, that makes “Train Dreams” so good. You can read it in one sitting in less than two hours.

The title story of Anthony Doerr’s own collection, Memory Wall, which won the 2010 Story Prize ($2,000.00), (beating out, by the way, Yiyun Li’s Gold Boy, Emerald Girl), has been called both a “novella” and a “long story.”

Having read all four of these works—“Memory Wall,” Train Dreams, “Kindness,” and The Sense of an Ending, I ask myself if they have anything in common other than the fact that they seem somewhat longer than what we expect of a short story and somewhat shorter than what we expect of a novel. I have followed the convention already adopted by earlier commentators of placing “Memory Wall” and “Kindness” in double quotation marks and italicizing Train Dreams and The Sense of an Ending—a convention which might suggest that the first two are long stories, while the second two are short novels. But, actually, the convention only reflects that the first two have never appeared in a single volume, while the second two have been released as single volumes (as a side note, Train Dreams was put inside double quotation marks when referred to in The Paris Review and The O. Henry Prize Stories, but now is italicized because it has appeared in a single, albeit slim, volume.)

So, is there a significant difference between a short story, a short novel/novella, and a novel, other than the promotional value given to a work when a publisher smells the money and releases the work as a single volume? (Brief side note: Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain” was released as a single volume when the movie gave it cache, although no one ever called it a novel, even a short novel.) Page numbers are no help, for all a publisher has to do to bulk up a long story into single volume status is to use wide margins, large type, and lots of white space on the page. Word count does not really tell us much either. The criterion for the Man Booker Prize is “full length novel,” but no word count is specified. On the other hand, the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award (at 30, 000 pounds; or $47,469 American dollars, the world’s biggest prize for a single story) specifies the work must be 6,000 words or less. Jane Smiley, in her book Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, says a novel is usually between 100,000 and 175,000 words.

The page number/word length criterion is a mug’s game, it seems to me—of little value. I think we can all agree there are significant differences between Herman Melville’s novel, Moby Dick, his novella Billy Budd, and his short story “Bartleby the Scrivener.” I think we can all agree there are differences between Henry James’s novel The Ambassadors, his novella The Turn of the Screw, and his short story “The Real Thing.” I think we can agree that there are differences between Joseph Conrad’s novel Lord Jim, his novella Heart of Darkness, and his short story “The Lagoon.” Yes, we probably all can agree that there are differences other than word count, but what are the differences between the three categories that are important for the reading of the works? Should I have different expectations when I begin reading these three different types of fictional works? What are those expectations?

I will try to suggest some answers to these questions, as well as discuss the similarities and differences between The Sense of an Ending, Train Dreams, “Memory Wall,” and “Kindness” in my next blog entry.


Sandra said...

If you've read Richard Bausch's Peace, I'd like to hear your comments on how you understand it as a form of novella or something else! I found his writing not only deals with a profound moral dilemma but the repeated instances of language's inability to capture meaning rises to the level of symbolism in the story. And the ongoing search for the enemy is also symbolic because it rises beyond the immediate context of the story. I don't see it as a novel because the scope is limited almost like a short story, but it has a wider scope than most short stories. Fascinating topic you are posing here and one that is not often discussed with much depth. Thanks again for this blog.

Charles E. May said...

Always good to hear from you, Sandra. I have not read Bausch's novel Peace, although I am a fan of his short stories. As you describe it, it sounds like the kind of thematic approach the novella finds most suitable. Glad you find my comments on the relationship between narrative genres useful.

Alex Keegan said...

Thanks, Charles, for some honesty in reviewing.

I often feel that there's too much of a "play-safe, they might review me next" attitude in the press.

I remember Banville's "The Sea", (ugh) and almost widespread "gushing" with just one judge standing against the tide...


BTW Barnes also had another book of shorts, "The History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters"

Meera said...

The story's facade is simple, refined almost to monotony and dependent on the revelation of a secret towards the ending. But what is hidden between the lines is far more chaotic—and likely to leave the reader anxious for days after finishing the book. I loved that the book made me really think about regret, and repentance. It also made me think about the idea that we are always dishonest narrators of our own lives. And the book was very disturbing that it made me think about how easy it is to think you are one kind of person, when you are actually not and how universal human frailty is.
The ending was excellent that it left me lost in the lines, sitting there, recollecting all the little pieces of story back together in my mind. And it left me chaotic and disturbed for days after finishing the book.