The Sense of Ending: in praise of the concise novel

51hhJ8IdqyLDisappearing into Julian Barnes’s 2011 Booker prize-winning novel, The Sense of an Ending was so pleasurable an experience that I read his short 163 page novella twice.

This is rare for me. I don’t read many books more than once. They have to really intrigue and beguile me to encourage a second reading.

So I can add The Sense of An Ending to a narrow list of twice or even thrice-read books that includes JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, the George Orwell novels Coming up for Air, 1984 and Keep the Aspidistra Flying and E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India.

In each book, I found a central character whose view of the world I identified with, or with whom I made a connection in some meaningful way, or whose life I wanted to step into, even for just a little while: a chance to be angst-ridden teenage rebel and narrator of Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield wondering the streets of Manhattan, having conversations with nuns and prostitutes, or rotund London insurance salesman George Bowling in Coming up for Air who escapes to the country town of his youth, before the bombs of WW2 fall, or idealistic, starving and self-destructive poet, Gordon Comstock in Keep the Aspidistra Flying.

In The Sense of an Ending I instantly liked and identified with Tony Webster, the 60-year-old divorced former arts administrator who has succeeded in living a life of little bother or regret, who does not fantasise “a markedly different life from the one that has been mine”.

Webster has accepted a modestly successful and peacable existence in a small London flat with his affairs neatly in order. He’s even on good terms with his ex-wife Margaret.

I’ve made my will; and my dealings with daughter, son-in-law, grandchildren and ex-wife, are, if less than perfect, at least settled. Or as I have persuaded myself. I’ve achieved a state of peaceableness or peacefulness. Because I get on with things. I don’t like mess and I don’t like leaving a mess.

But then he is forced to re-evaluate things – love, friendship, memory, the decisions he made and their consequences – when he receives an unexpected bequest from a woman he’d met only once, 40 years earlier.

She is Sarah Ford, the recently deceased mother of his college girlfriend, Veronica, who has bequeathed him £500 as well as the diary of his erudite, brilliant school friend, Adrian Finn, who committed suicide while at college and whose passing was described in the Cambridge Evening News under the headline: “Tragic Death of Promising Young Man”.

Adrian dated Veronica soon after Tony’s relationship with her ended. Having parted ways angrily via a dreadful, hurtful letter Tony, went travelling and in the days before email and mobile phones, only found out about his friends death many weeks later, when he returned home.

Tony’s mother wonders if Adrian killed himself “because he was too clever”. Tony comes to the conclusion that Adrian, who had great powers of reason and an amazing intellect, had come to the logical conclusion that he should end his life.

But then comes the promise of the diary, a way into his deceased friend’s mind and for Tony, who doesn’t like loose ends, the prospect of a definitive answer: a way to make sense of Adrian’s ending.

The only problem is his still very angry ex-girlfriend Veronica: she has the diary and won’t give it to him.

Instead she feeds him an extract with a complex maths equation that Tony must unravel.

In doing so he confronts his own decision to accept the path of an uneventful, non-confrontational life with no loose ends or complications, he begins to unravel the mystery of himself.

If this doesn’t quite explain why I like Tony so much (people who know me might say he and I have a lot in common)  then I think this observation in a review of the book in the New York Times explains it rather well:

Barnes’s unreliable narrator is a mystery to himself, which makes the novel one unbroken, sizzling, satisfying fuse. Its puzzle of past causes is decoded by a man who is himself a puzzle.

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A day in the life: a review of “In Every Face I Meet” by Justin Cartwright

evryface“In Every Face I Meet” is a 1995 Booker Prize-shortlisted novel by Justin Cartwright that takes place over the course of a single, pivotal London day in February 1990 in the life of melancholic forty-something business executive Anthony Northleach.

Northleach, a former talented rugby player (he once trialed for England ‘B’), works for a failing company (what it does is never quite revealed), convinced that the imminent release of Nelson Mandela will fundamentally shift the trajectory of the world, Britain and his own sense of existentialism.

Much of the novel is the inner monologue of Northleach – he recalls, with detailed wonder and awe, a brilliant try scored by English rugby captain Will Carling in a weekend drubbing of the French, he remembers pivotal moments from his childhood in the kingdom of Swaziland, he ponders his marriage, a passionate affair he once had, and his friendship with his best mate and fellow former rugby player Mike, whose life is spinning out of control.

The secondary storyline is that of Chanelle, a crack-addict and prostitute living in a council estate and her black boyfriend/pimp Jason – sporting a medallion of Nelson Mandela around his neck – living on the outer fringes of London society in the final vestiges of Thatcherism.

Without giving too much away, the two worlds – Northleach’s and Chanelle and Jason’s – are on course for a horrifying collision, but what the novel is really about is Northleach’s longing for the past and his disappointment with the present.

It seems that Cartwright has honed in on the second difficult period in an adult male’s life, (the first being adolescence with all its clumsy fumblings and urges) that period from about 40 onwards when there is cause to reflect and ask the question: “Have I lived a purposeful life?”

And if not, “Is there still time to find some meaning?”

Indeed, the character of Northleach must contain parts of Cartwright himself – who was born and schooled in South Africa, the son of a left-wing newspaper editor, and who wrote the book in London, when he was in his late forties.

I have read “In Every Face I Meet” twice – once while travelling overseas in 2010 and now again, when it turned up in a crate of goods shipped over from South Africa.

What’s so enjoyable about reading the book is being inside Anthony Northleach’s head for one day of his life, following him from the office, where he muses about whether his dowdy secretary will ever make it to Thailand, then on the Tube into Soho for lunch in an Italian restaurant with Mike (bumping into Will Carling along the way) where he invites Mike to come with him on his odyssey to Cape Town and finally on his fateful drive home where he encounters Chanelle and Jason.

Northleach, despite his many failings, is immensely likeable with his sardonic political and philosophical commentary, and his honest reflectiveness.

He (and the novel itself) will particularly appeal to white South African-expats (be they in Britain, Australia or entrenched in any other “safe” country),  nearing or past forty that still have a strong sense nostalgia for the old country, especially if you were there at the time Mandela was freed and the inkling of a utopian “Rainbow nation” first emerged.

Indeed, the book was a gift from a South African expat colleague and friend who raved about it and was right when he said I would find it immensely enjoyable to read.

Looking back to February 1990 when Mandela took his first steps to freedom, they do feel like halcyon days, filled with hope and the prospect of something new and fresh, but also scary and uncertain. We certainly lived through history in the making.

Reflecting back on my own life as I fast approach forty – there is much about Northleach’s longings and existential angst that resonates with me.