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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Travels through literature, alcohol and America: A review of ‘The Trip to Echo Spring’ by Olivia Laing

The trip to echo springErnst Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, John Berryman and Raymond Carver had at least two things in common: they are all giants of 20th Century American literature and…they were all confirmed, raging alcoholics.

These two commonalities are the basis for ‘The Trip to Echo Spring’ by English author Olivia Laing, a writer and book reviewer for The Guardian and The Observer newspapers.

The title of the book refers a line said by the sexually conflicted character Brick in Tennessee Williams’ great Southern play ‘Cat on a Hat Tin Roof‘.  He says it to indicate he is going to get a drink of whiskey: to numb the pain of his “mendacity”.

Laing sets out to explore how these six writers – whom she admired greatly and who shaped the course of American fiction – experienced, thought about, wrote about and dealt with their addiction to alcohol.

She does so by undertaking a physical trip across America in the Spring of 2011 starting in New York and staying in the Elysee, a hotel in Manhattan’s theatre district where Tennessee Williams spent his last days, and finishing in Port Angeles on the Strait of Juan de Fuca in the upper north corner of Washington State, where Raymond Carver lived the last years of his life  and wrote some of his best short stories while living with the poet Tess Gallagher.

In between, Laing heads down to New Orleans to sit at the hotel bar where Tennessee Williams came in for a drink and to pick up young men and to attend the annual Tennessee Williams Literary Festival, flies south-east to balmy Key West, Florida to visit Hemingway haunts, takes a train west to Baltimore and North Carolina to follow Fitzgerald’s own journey and then chugs out west to Illinois and Minneapolis, tracing the fatal path of the poet, John Berryman.

Amongst all this travel, are Laing’s reflections and contemplations of the alcoholic lives of these writers interwoven with meditative observations of the vast, constantly changing American landscape, mostly from her train window. She writes:

“In Alabama the earth was red and their was Wisteria in the trees. Somewhere deep in the country the train stopped in a pine forest. It was very quiet. A needle dropped lazily through the warm air. The woman beside me was on the phone…”

“Between Tuscaloosa [Alabama] and Meridian [Mississippi] we ran through uninterrupted miles of forest. The hills were covered in bone-grey timber, split and weather-worn into fantastic shapes. Then open country with cows grazing…

I awoke again at dawn. This time the world outside was white. North Dakota, flat as an ironed sheet.

The constant travel not only gives the book it’s part travel-guide feel, but also it’s momentum. Laing is not only on a journey to discover more about her literary heroes and their afflictions, but is also on a journey of self-discovery; making sense of a disjointed, dysfunctional upbringing and one washed through with alcohol. Her mother’s partner was a violent alcoholic.

One of the great strength of ‘The Trip to Echo Spring” and a sign of its success is that makes you want to go out and read (or re-read) the works of Williams, Hemingway, Cheever, Fitzgerald, Berryman and Carver, reminded as you are of their massive contribution to the world of literature despite the booze, blackouts, collapses, rehabilitations and relapses.

Raymond Carver

Raymond Carver

Just off the top of my head I could reel off a dozen books, plays and poetry collections I’ve now added to my “must read” list:

– The Glass Menagerie (Williams)
– Sweet Bird of Youth (Williams)
– For Whom the Bell Tolls (Hemingway)
Death in the Afternoon (Hemingway)
– Tender is the Night (Fitzgerald)
– The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald – AGAIN!)
– Cathedral (Carver)
– Dream Songs (Berryman)
– Recovery (Berrryman)

Already, a copy of Cheever’s novel “Falconer” about a jailed heroin addict is waiting beside my bed and I’ve begun to read the opening scene of “A Streetcar Named Desire” from an old paperback that was tucked into the book shelf. And I am waiting for the opportunity to watch Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman as Maggie and Brick.

Laing has great empathy for her heroes because of the writing they produced,  but she does not sentamentalise them, brush aside their faults or criticise their weaker efforts. Nor is their any glamorization of alcoholism:

[On Cheever’s drinking in 1966]: “…his drinking had passed well beyond normal measures now, even bearing in mind the norms of the time. When he wasn’t on location [filming his short story ‘The Swimmer’] he wrote in the early hours of the morning and by half past ten could be found twitching in the kitchen waiting for his family to disperse so he could administer the first self-soothing scoop of scotch or gin. If they didn’t leave quick enough he’d drive himself to the liquor store, where he’d buy a bottle, motor on to some pretty back street and sit there suckling, inevitably spilling a good slug down his chin.

All six writers were at times monstrous personalities, capable of inflicting great cruelty on their wives, children, lovers, friends and families: Raymond Carver almost killed his wife and was resentful of his own children, Tennessee Williams once defecated in a university hallway, John Cheever projected his closeted homosexuality into rage against his wife.

The book is rich with analysis of the works of fiction these writers produced as well as their non-fiction articles and memoirs. But she is no literary snob, relishing the opportunity to join a tour group visiting Hemingway’s home and museum in Key West or do a Tennessee Williams walk in New Orleans or enjoy meals with retired farmers on her train journeys.

The conclusions she reaches about these writers are not surprising – that they drank to deaden the pain of their childhood, their parents, their sexuality, their broken-ness, their perceived and real failures, while writing was a way to try to become whole again.

None,  apart from John Cheever, managed to stop drinking though they all tried. None lived into old age and two – Berryman and Hemingway –  died at their own hand.

But ultimately it is the journey that Laing takes you on through the minds and immense body of work of these giants of fiction that is the real joy

Not the destination.

Links:
An interview with the author, Olivia Laing  (Buzzfeed)
A review of The Trip to Echo Springs by The Times Literary Supplement
Olivia Laing’s personal website