I'm sitting in my kitchen listening to Carol Off talk to Julian Barnes about The Sense of an Ending on the CBC. I didn't initially fall in love with this book, so sometimes it's good to hear the author talk about things and shed some light on the motivations, because my first reading, as you'll see below, could pretty much be summed up with: “bwah!?” Everyone loved this book on first read, and all I could think about was these streams of wicked, strange, or stupid women that populate the novel. One of the things Barnes said in this interview, is that Tony — the narrator of The Sense of an Ending — isn't a bad guy, he doesn't hate women, he's just confused by them. This really, really shows. Stephen Hawking was interviewed recently, and when asked “What do you think most about during the day?” he replied “Women. They are a complete mystery.”* This tidbit is what made all the headlines, but why was anyone surprised? Freud famously didn't know what women wanted (and he told them what to want instead, didn't he?). Not understanding women is the cheeky default of a certain kind of man who would rather make the joke than try. Tony, according to Barnes-on-the-radio, has mostly lived a life unexamined, and that leads to a terrible characterization of the other half of the population. I suppose I just have to take Barnes on his word that Tony is clueless, not “bad.” Tony is not to be admired, not even in the end. Tony is not redeemed. Tony remains clueless and he's probably too old to care, or to change.**
Does character develop over time? In novels, of course it does: otherwise there wouldn't be much of a story. But in life? I sometimes wonder. Our attitudes and opinions change, we develop new habits and eccentricities; but that's something different, more like decoration. Perhaps character resembles intelligence, except that character peaks a little later: between twenty and thirty, say. And after that, we're just stuck with what we've got. We're on our own. If so, that would explain a lot of lives, wouldn't it? and also — if this isn't too grand a word — our tragedy.
I can't help but notice when men put things onto women that aren't really a thing. (See also "magical sperm phallacy") After Tony has a sexual encounter with ex-girlfriend Veronica, the following conversation takes place:
'You selfish bastard,' she said, the next time we met.This is after she removed her own “knickers,” handed him a condom from her own stash, and put the thing on him. As one would expect, the word "rape" sticks to Tony. Later, when she gets together with his old school chum, Adrian, Tony is
'Yes, well, there it is.'
'That practically makes it rape'
[i]magining what Veronica might have said to Adrian about me ('He took my virginity and then immediately dumped me. So really, the whole thing felt like rape, do you see?')This is a pretty weird piece of the narrative, thinking that women are so quick to call "rape" when most of the time we can't call it rape when it really does happen to us. So what's happening here? Is Barnes as clueless about women as Tony? It's this some sort of false memory? Note the second quoted passage: Tony imagines Veronica calling it rape. Is this some sort of fear-based wish-fulfillment? Tony's afraid she's saying these things to other people, so he decides that yes, she actually has said this, and to him. One can't be sure whether it's Tony or Barnes, but it's worth pondering. Tony also subscribes to that the old virgin/whore dichotomy. I have no qualm with this in context of characterization. It works, because Tony is the Everybloke, to every degree.
And did you think her a virgin when she was rolling a condom on to your cock? In a strange way, you know, I did. I thought it might be one of those intuitive female skills I inevitably lacked. Well, perhaps it was.
I know it's possible for men to write really believable women; many succeed. So when shit like this happens, especially in a book that's big award-winner, I wonder what's up. (And of course, I don't notice when women do the same to men, because I am not a man, and I'd happily accept examples where men found women's writing to be very weird and wrong. On the flip-side, there has been universal acclaim for Lynn Coady getting it right in The Antagonist.) As soon as I start wondering, I start looking at the rest of the female characters. Tony's mother is presented as stupid (though all young people feel this way about their parents at some point). Interestingly, Barnes said in the interview I heard today that his father was “wiser” than his mother, so there's something of Barnes in Tony here. His daughter, Susie, is slightly self-absorbed, and distant.
She's practical about emotions, Susie is. Gets that from her mother. So my emotions as they actually are don't concern her.She spends more time with his ex-wife, who cuckolded him. This is okay though, because she gets what she deserves:
Margaret's second husband turned out to be not quite peaceable enough: he took off with someone who looked rather like her, but was that crucial ten years youngerShe and Tony have a "good" relationship, but one gets the sense he feels slightly controlled by her. It's amusing how Margaret and Tony talk of the mysterious woman, how one is or is not that woman, but all women are basically a mystery to him.
Margaret used to say that there were two sorts of women: those with clear edges to them, and those who implied mystery.This reductionist categorization seems more in line with how Tony looks at women. Again, I wonder if Tony is putting words in someone's mouth (though women do make judgements about other women all the time, but I'm thinking of how this particular book works). Veronica is dubbed "the fruitcake" later by Margaret, and Tony agrees. Meeting up after 40-odd years, Tony finds the same old, cold Veronica, who gives him the female stereotypical “If you don't know why I'm angry I'm not going to tell you” line so many times. Maybe it's repeated so often, because Barnes knows it's a cliché.
'You just don't get it, do you? But then you never did.'
'You still don't get it. You never did, and you never will. So stop even trying.'
'If you need to ask the question, then the answer is no.'The only woman in The Sense of an Ending who seems at all nice or caring winds up — spoiler alert — seducing Adrian and baring his child. The child likely has Down's Syndrome:"'The Mother' — at a dangerously late age. A child damaged as a result." A result of the mother's age, a result of her scheming to take the boyfriend away from her daughter. (Is this why she was so nice to Tony when he visited the family home?) The sins of the mother visited on the child, and Veronica is tasked of caring for him after her mother dies.
With Veronica I moved from blaming her for having failed to save Adrian to pitying her.Adrian kills himself, young, while — as far as Tony knows — still with Veronica.
The bitch, I thought. If there was one woman in the entire world a man could fall in love with and still think life worth refusing, it was VeronicaUnlike the ladies of The Sense of an Ending, Adrian is the shining light of the narrative. He is the stand-out, is interesting in ways good and bad, which are all things that Tony will never be. If Adrian is the only thing that gave an ordinary life a narrative, Veronica is the villain of that narrative for taking the novel-worthy away from him.
I did, eventually, find myself thinking straight. That's to say, understanding Adrian's reasons, respecting them, and admiring him.And that's early on in the novel, before the reflections of age. Later:
I don't envy Adrian his death, but I envy him the clarity of his life.Adrian remains a shining star for Tony, possibly because he didn't live long enough to be tarnished. He's Tony's dead rock star.
The Sense of an Ending is chock-a-block with ruminate wisdom. Part of me wanted to quote everything, but I had to stop myself from transcribing half the book. When Tony talks about ageing, about the things he's learned, about what it's like to be average and how infernally dull it is to be completely normal, I rather liked the book. These parts certainly speak to a person like me, who feels pretty average in all ways. I wish that would have been more of the content, instead of the paean to male friendship, and how women are just so weird (though isn't Adrian weird, isn't his suicide, and his affair with Veronica's mother very, very weird?). I suppose, though, that would cut an already slim book down to an essay. Like last year's winner The Finkler Question, we have a mild-mannered, white middle-class middle-aged man telling his story in a calm and characteristically English funny way. I laughed out loud at both books, I really liked Finkler and felt that was the right choice that year for the Booker. But following that with The Sense of an Ending seemed a bit... not predictable, but sigh-worthy. Really? Another one of these? Some people feel frustrated about historical fiction taking prizes (I've heard the term "Giller Bait" bandied about, referring to historical fiction in Canada), and this is how I feel about the middle-aged, middle-class white English guy wondering just what it all means. It's a bit, just a little bit, tired. Not enough, yet, to annoy me, but we'll see what happens next year.
You get towards the end of life — no, not life itself, but of something else: the end of any likelihood of change in that life. [...] I thought of what I couldn't know or understand now, of all that couldn't ever be known or understood. [...] There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is a great unrest.
*My twitter-snark response: “This from a guy who left his wife for his nurse.” ETA: Ouch. Then there's this: For years there have been shocking rumours of violence and abuse against the vulnerable scientist.
**”I will not change and I will not be nice.”