I wanted to add a few comments to my notes on Julian Barnes’s “A Sense of an Ending”. I have spotted what I think is a significant flaw at the heart of the novel, although to be fair it is one that is not apparent on a casual read.
The novel’s primary theme is the imperfection of memory, which the narrator describes more eloquently as “some approximate memories which time has deformed into certainty” (page 4), and “that certainty produced at the point where the imprefections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation” (page 17). To illustrate this the letter Tony writes to Adrian and Veronica is exhibit A. In Tony’s memory this letter is unremarkable:
“as far as I remember,I told him pretty much what I thought of their joint moral scruples. I also advised him to be prudent” (page 42)
– all fairly restrained, dignified stuff. The actual letter is far more robust, and is positioned by the narrator as being the cause of all the subsequent problems in their various relationships.
But this doesn’t work, because when Tony describes his recollection of the letter he is already aware of what he wrote, he has seen the original – unless we are being invited to understand that the narration of part one is divided from part two by the reading of Mrs Page’s will.
While possible that is unconvincing – why would Tony record the events of part one unless to provide background to part two? So he already knows his language was harsher than he describes it in his softened page 42 version. This is important to the understanding of Barnes’s central theme, that memory is fallible, but that documentary evidence can often teach us how flawed our memory is. Here the documentary evidence is to hand, but Tony still presents us with the pre-documentary version.
I appreciate that I need to set this out more clearly, but for now I think my central point is that the points Barnes are discussing are not fully thought through.
Read in the Vintage 2008 edition shown
The decision of the 2007 Booker prize judges to give this book the nod over On Chesil Beach must rank as one of the all-time puzzling decisions of a prize panel. Because this was lame. The novel’s central premise is very traditional – a family member has committed suicide, and the clan gathers to mourn their loss and review his life. This is shown us by Veronica Hegarty, the book’s narrator, sister of the suicide, Liam. We are told early on that Liam’s death can be traced back to an event in his childhood. The traditional dark secret revolves around her grandmother, Ada – I was irresistibly reminded of another Ada, great-aunt Ada Doom, who saw something nasty in the woodshed, and has never been the same since.
The reveal – that Liam was sexually assaulted by a friend of the grandmother. (he was staying with his grandmother as his mother went through yet another pregnancy) is underwhelming. The line between this assualt and his eventual suicide decades later is never drawn – in fact Liam is a very lightly sketched character, and we understand little about his life and why he took it. The disclosure of this incident from the past is not the turning point we are led to expect – it is not revealed to the wider family, and nothing comes from it.
P.S. As with The Accidental, negative reviews on Amazon outweigh the positive – and I genuinely don’t believe this is just Booker bashing.
Remarkably this will be one of the only resolutions I have ever kept. The aim was to keep a record of books read in 2012 for posterity’s sake, and to allow me space to record my thoughts and impressions of the books. It has led me to think of some possible new resolutions for 2013 and beyond:
- Shakespeare – reading the whole of the canon, including the poetry, in one year. More than do-able, especially as I have read probably 75% already (although I would have to reread, as most of this was 30 years ago!)
- Russian classics – a big black hole in my reading thus far, although I am coming close to finishing Crime and Punishment, finally.
- Booker prize winners – about 40 novels or so which is comfortably do-able in a year – again I can tick off a good dozen or so already, although some, such as Cloud Atlas would definitely be worth revisiting. Other, like The Old Devils, Amis senior, probably less so. I reckon I could take a good bite out of all shortlisted books as well, but I think that counts as sadism.
- Noble laureates – lots of world literature out there which I know nothing about.
Any other ideas?
Firstly, we are encouraged throughout the story to think of Lennie as an animal – all of the imagery used to describe him focuses on this aspect of his appearance and behaviour. When we first see him he is described as “dragging his feet a little, the way a bear drags his paws” (page 19); later he is said to be “as strong as a bull” (43); and later still he “came as silently as a creeping bear” (140). Bears and bulls are of course dangerous, and frequently killed by man.
The story is set in a world in which it is legitimate for man to destroy animals – for example to avoid unnecessary suffering. We are given two examples if this in the text – the killing of Candy’s dog, and the killing of four of Slim’s puppies. The putting down of Candy’s dog is particularly poignant and telling – Candy is told it is the right thing to do, and the reasons are compelling, but at the same time we can clearly see that it is not a straightforward decision. He is told to shoot the dog in the back of the head, which prefigures Lennie’s death. And of course it is Candy’s gun which is used to kill Lennie, underlining the connection between the two deaths, if such emphasis were needed. So Lennie is little more than an animal, and it is acceptable to put animals down when their owners feel it is appropriate to do so, therefore….
But Lennie isn’t an animal, and killing him is not legitimate.
Lennie is brain-damaged and disabled, and whatever his crimes did not deserved to be put down like a dumb beast. Across the Atlantic, the Nazis were treating disabled people in pretty much the same way as George does Lennie, weighing their value in the balance and killing those found too much of a burden.
So why, when George kills Lennie, do so many readers see it as nothing less than an act of love, more than a mercy killing, a gift, sending Lennie to the promised land he has no prospect of inheriting on earth? Steinbeck spends the whole book leading us to this point, painting the choices George makes as unavoidable. We are told of their near escape from their previous town, when Lennie scares a young woman, sparking a manhunt. We are told of Lennie’s troubled childhood and George’s charity in taking him on. We see Lennie’s propensity for killing animals accidentally. And George loves Lennie, cares for him as best he can, and doesn’t want him to suffer the painful death Curley threatens.