“You get towards the end of life – no, not life itself, but of something else: the end of the likelihood of change in that life. You are allowed a long moment to pause, time enough to ask the question: what else have I done wrong?” ~ Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending
I am a happily married man. Gorgeous and I rarely argue about anything of substance, and when we do, it is with the certainty that I will quickly realise my error. Books, and the interpretation of certain books may be the exception. I tend to take the viewpoint of the author, or at least what I guess that might be. She, is the Reader.
So it is that, a few of days ago, I picked up Her copy of Julian Barnes “The Sense of an Ending”, and proceeded to read it the same day, on a train journey to Paris. The novella moved me to tears. I found Barnes’ description of ageing, of the confusion of memories and feelings this implies, the nostalgia of the whole tale, and the tragedy of the characters, simply overwhelming. I understood the Man Booker Prize jury and their decision in 2011. This is a small masterpiece, a jewel of a book that one must read and re-read.
I found poignant the description of the college boys growing up, their hopes, their shattered illusions, their eventual defeat once they accepted that Life would definitely not turn out as Literature. I identified myself with Tony Webster, the gentle (my view) fellow who learnt to survive, was victim of a manipulative and heartless young woman in the person of Miss Veronica Mary Elizabeth Ford, to my mind fully deserving Tony’s own description of bitch and “cockteaser”.
I too believed that History was the lie of the victors. And my taste in music were not that different from Tony’s own. So, I too felt “like a survivor from some antique, bypassed culture whose members were still using carved turnips as a form of monetary exchange.” That actually made me laugh – on a good teasing day Gorgeous calls me her “Neanderthal”. If you haven’t read the book then stop reading this post now. The rest would spoil your pleasure when you come to reading it.
I have my interpretation of the tragedy, and was even more disgusted at Veronica’s antics when Tony, with good reasons, attempts to contact her again: this confirmed to me his correct diagnosis regarding the lady. But of course nothing is that simple.
Gorgeous said then that since I’d finished the book she wished to have my views on it. I was happy to discuss it and had no concern about the outcome. I gave my wife my views of the book, in a literary sense, and then of the story and of the characters. It turns out that her interpretation was completely different. For a start her belief was that it was Tony who had made Veronica’s mother pregnant. This made/makes no sense to me although I admit that my reasoning is solely based on the fact that Mrs Ford mère – Sarah – left Adrian’s diary in her will specifically for Tony, with a note saying that Adrian’s last months had been happy. To my mind, Adrian, the philosopher, had somehow got close enough to Veronica’s mum and made her pregnant, “at a dangerously late age”. Of course there is still an unexplained mystery as to how and why. To my mind the explanation may be that young Veronica behaved just as badly with Adrian as, before him, with Tony, and had taken him to bed merely to frustrate Tony – didn’t she push Adrian to write to Tony that they were “going out”? – Upon which the said Adrian followed Tony’s recommendation and visited Mother with the unplanned consequences. Wife was not convinced. Wife thought Tony Webster was a fine example of male brutishness and insensitivity, in one word another stupid prick, although She admitted that I may be right about the paternity. As for Veronica’s attitude and “cockteasing”, Wife declared, to my stupefaction, that a young woman had a right to chose her own ways to satisfaction. I nearly choked, and felt awkward since that affirmation is, of course, undeniable. But I thought it was about a relationship, and what of the mess that evidently ensued, and that Tony in his older age only discovered as a result of receiving Mrs Ford’ s letter via her solicitor? What of Veronica’s refusal to explain anything to him but let him guess at some of the truth through parables and a display of contempt that surely would infuriate anyone? What was her right to withhold, perhaps destroy, Adrian’s diary that her mother had legated to Tony? I was on the wrong track. As Tony says: “There was no arguing against “feelings”, because women were experts in them, men coarse beginners.” Well now, for a start I have never thought the “Sixties” were a time of “permissiveness”. For a tiny minority of “artists” maybe, but for most of us – here and there and everywhere – the decade was a time of hypocrisy and lies. The main problem then for young people was contraception, when things were not cheap and not easy to get, and we were poor.
“But I was wrong about most things, then as now. For instance, why did I assume she was a virgin? I never asked her, and she never told me. I assumed she was because she wouldn’t sleep with me: where is the logic in that?” – I really felt for Tony reading this. Gorgeous said he was an idiot. And by inference I was on my way to become one too!
He had been warned. Mother had told him: “Don’t let Veronica get away with too much.” I am sure Mother knew what a bitch daughter was, and Tony was evidently not Miss Ford’s first victim… Still. Some forty years later he tries to understand. Yes he wrote that odious and very stupid letter, and rather than warn his friend, as a true comrade should have done, he insulted him, and her. I said to Wife that I would never have done such a thing, Wife looked at me critically.
I said, “Whichever way one reads the book, Miss Veronica Ford is the personification of all that can go wrong with human relationships.” Gorgeous smiled: “and of course it had nothing to do with him?” I thought again of Mr Tony Webster: “Why should we we expect age to mellow us? If it isn’t life’s business to reward merit, why should it be life’s business to give us warm, comfortable feelings towards its end? What possible evolutionary purpose could nostalgia serve?” But Gorgeous had the last word, when she quoted Adrian himself: “If life is a wager, what form does the bet take?”
If you have read “The Sense of an Ending”, we are interested in your interpretation of the book and its characters!