Why I might read The Sense of an Ending

Why I Might Read The Sense of an Ending

The short answer? Considering it won The Man Booker  (in 2011), it might be more reasonable to wonder why I wouldn’t read The Sense of an Ending. But when it came out, a few friends said they’d been disappointed by it. One friend hated it. For better or (possibly) for worse, I tend to skip prize-winning books written by men in favor of other books written by women. And so I skipped The Sense of an Ending

But now I might read it. I’ve been staying in a house filled with someone else’s library. Like most things here, the books are well-chosen, eclectic and strongly individual: preferences for Flannery O’Connor, Gabriel García Márquez, Annie Dillard, Robinson Davies, and O. Henry prize-winning short story anthologies. There are also several paperback novels by Julian Barnes (who wrote The Sense of an Ending). I finally got around to reading one of them and it impressed me. That begins the long answer. 

"Staring at the Sun" by Julian Barnes

“Staring at the Sun”     by Julian Barnes

Staring at the Sun was published more than 20 years ago, in 1986. Before I checked the publication date, I would have guessed the book was more recent than that. Not that 1986 is so terribly long ago—this book just manages to feel quite contemporary as its story openly and skillfully travels forward from the past. Staring at the Sun follows the life of one woman, Jean Serjeant, beginning with her 1920s childhood adventures caddying for her charming, lonely, oddball Uncle Leslie, following her late-adolescent fascination with Sergeant-Pilot Tommy Prosser, a grounded RAF officer billeted with her family and then her late-WWII marriage to a police officer named Michael.

After twenty years of childless, largely loveless, and in her eyes, fairly typical conjugal partnership, Jean unexpectedly becomes pregnant. When her husband asks her what she plans to do, she replies “Oh, I’m going to have the baby and leave you…But I expect I’ll leave you and then have the baby. I expect I’ll do it that way around.” And leave him she does, raising her son, Gregory, in a state of perpetual flight from one low-rent apartment building to another. Once he is safely installed in self-sufficient adulthood, Jean continues to fly, traveling to China, the Grand Canyon, wherever she can manage, almost always alone. Her observations about the world are keen and intelligent and humorously matter-of-fact and her curiosity is unending. She’s a wonderful protagonist. 

The novel wraps up as Jean Serjeant, now nearly 100 years old and living in a sci-fi-esque, eerily prescient, 21st century (where most information is instantly available via computer and you can apply to speak to TAT, a restricted-use area of the universal database whose acronym stands for The Absolute Truth), after a life spent thinking about how to live, begins to think about how to die. Even this has been made “easier” in the first years of the imagined new millennium.

This book was funny, smart and exquisitely well-crafted. The most compelling part of the novel for me was Jean’s relationship to a man she barely knew, the pilot, Tommy Prosser. As Barnes suggests through the delicate similarity between Jean’s surname (Serjeant) and Tommy’s rank (Sergeant), these characters share a deep, imperfect sympathy. Or at least, Jean shares a deep sympathy with her memories of Tommy Prosser. “I’ll tell you the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” he says to Jean one morning in her kitchen, and then he describes for her an ordinary miracle neither of them will ever forget: flying back from France across the English channel one morning at dawn, he watched the sun rise in the east. Aware of how visible his black-painted plane was in the light, he climbed back into darkness and then dropped into such a fast dive that his speed drove the sun back beneath the horizon. As he approached England, it climbed out of the darkness for a second time. Two dawns on the same day. Strange, solitary beauty in the midst of a war full of horrors and loss.

Two dawns—the sort of thing you can’t really see if you obey the prohibition not to stare at the sun, or if you follow other rules that keep you grounded in normalcy. But the moment you disobey, you realize that some facts and impossibilities are little more than matters of popular habit and agreement. This is a book about Jean’s curiosity teaching her to disobey the major rule of her existence (“to obey”) and about everything she sees after that. It is also a novel about the rules that most concern us—you know, the ones about life leading inevitably to death—and how to go about living within them. It’s not a life-changing book, but it was a very good one. Good enough to get me to read something else by Julian Barnes. Like maybe The Sense of an Ending.



The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady

Another staff recommendation (and further proof I’m really drawn to things that are yellow).

The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady

The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady

by Elizabeth Stuckey-French

I read this novel straight through, in a cramped middle seat on six-hour flight. I’ve never been so blissfully oblivious of leg cramps and shrieking babies. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book that succeeds so well at being simultaneously playful and serious. This is a farcical revenge novel and also a thoughtful, character-driven family drama. It’s startlingly contemporary even though its central character is nearly an octogenarian. It’s a mess of oddballs, contradictions and cultural references ranging from Chaucer to CSI. 

For some reason, I really want to describe this book using a food analogy — but what kind of pie mixes hurricanes, big religion, medical malfeasance and Asperger’s, with Elvis obsession, a homemade nuclear reactor, and a 77-year-old woman who moves to Tallahassee to murder someone? 

What kind of pie? Delicious pie, that’s what kind of pie. Have some!

~ Margaret

Best of 2011

It’s more than half way through January and as usual, I’m behind. I considered skipping this post altogether, as many of my favorite books from 2011 appeared on this blog when I read them, or shortly thereafter. I also don’t remember what I read in 2011 very well.  My chronology is wonky and unreliable, and I can only be sure of a few general and thematic things:

I can think more easily of authors than of titles. I know I read oh so many books that broke my heart. I also know that if you spoke to me at all last year, had a single conversation with me longer than 30 seconds, there’s a strong chance that I declared my passionate love for Joan Didion. I read her novel Play It As It Lays at some point early in 2011. I fell in love with that book, and then fell further in love with Slouching Towards Bethlehem. I’d read a little Didion before and liked it, but I’d never read her the way I read her this year: intensely, voraciously, patiently. And impatiently. I read an advanced manuscript copy of her new memoir, Blue Nights before it was released this fall. I finished it in the middle of the night, reading with a flashlight, feeling stunned.

I dressed up the day that I worked our bookstore’s event with her. I was giddy about meeting her and hearing her speak. I told her so. She thanked me. I’m still a bit giddy. 

Joan Didion, from Steve Pyke

I think that Joan Didion is one of the best writers alive today. I think her work will be read for centuries. I had a conversation the other day about Sylvia Plath, and whether or not she should be called a minor, rather than a major poet. My friend said (I’m paraphrasing) that she thinks of Plath (on whom she wrote her dissertation) as a minor poet, mostly because she is so distinctly tied to her time, rather than being simultaneously timely and timeless. I think Didion is timely and timeless. I think that she is a writer for whom writing gets harder the better she gets at it. I think that she uses language like a knife, and the more adept she becomes, the thinner and sharper her blade and the more elusive her quarry. I cannot imagine a more terrifying blank page than the one that faces Joan Didion when she begins to write, and I think you can sense that in the deep, oceanic rhythm of her prose, so propulsive and beautiful, haunting and incisive, lyrical and fear-defying. I have trouble thinking of another writer who speaks to me as profoundly as Didion does.  

That being said, I did read a few other things this year. Mostly poetry. Well, that’s a lie — I read a lot of poetry, but I read many other things too. A breakdown by genre seems like a good idea, so…

Fiction: I loved Olga Grushin’s The Dream Life of Sukhanov and Jennifer Egan’s  A Visit from the Goon SquadI was swept away by Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion, and entranced (and horrified, as usual) by Iris Murdoch’s The Nice and the Good and The Bell. I think I owe a lot to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slapstickwhich I read early last winter and which cracked through a string of reading failures with tragic hilarity and misshapen affection. 

I reread Sarah Waters’ novel The Nightwatch, Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater! and Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth.  I highly recommend reading The Phantom Tollbooth aloud to yourself whenever you’re in need of buoying up.

I also read a quite a few essays. I was enchanted by  Elif Batuman’s The Possessed, whose final line (“If I could start over today, I would choose literature again. If the answers exist in the world or the universe, I still think that’s where we’re going to find them.”) tolled in my head throughout the past month and a half of struggling with graduate school applications. I wrote a staff recommendation for Anna Politkovskaya’s final collected writings, Is Journalism Worth Dying for?, perhaps the most important and most difficult book I read last year. I discovered the great pleasures of M.F.K Fisher and Wendell Berry.

I’ve never had a year where I’ve thought more about how I want to live my life, so it’s more than appropriate that one of my favorite books of the year was Sarah Bakewell’s biography, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. I also spent several weeks with Hermione Lee’s excellent biography of Virginia Woolf (by far the longest book I read this year) and weird and hilarious train ride with Shirley Jackson’s Life Among the Savages.

This year was my introduction to graphic novels, and thanks to the hand-selected choices of a terrifically knowledgeable and generous friend, I’m probably hooked for life. Many of my favorite books this year have really important graphic elements. I had my heart broken by Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls and David Mazzucchelli’s gorgeous graphic novel Asterios Polyp. I had it repaired by Maira Kalman’s The Principles of Uncertainty, by the fun I’ve had reading The Unwritten series, and by bathing it in oodles and oodles of poetry. Granted, I read some pretty heartbreaking poetry, but something about poetry repairs your heart even as it splits it open. 

I read more Szymborksa, discovered Bob Hicok and Jack Gilbert, returned to Frank O’Hara and A.R. Ammons, and stumbled across Katherine Larsen’s excellent Radial Symmetry, the poems of Nick Flynn, the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, and Olena Kalytiak Davis.  

So, in summary, 2011’s Absolute Best: Joan Didion, The Dream Life of Sukhanov, Asterios Polyp, Bob Hicok, and A.R. Ammons. Absolute, absolute best? Didion and Hicok. I’ll leave you with this:

Some things that come together in coming apart

How stuck am I on the polar ice caps
now that they’re not so much there as historical
novels people pretend to have read
but really, who has the time? Like it’s haveable,
time, like we can stop driving ourselves
to the market and crazy soon enough
to have anything left to claim for England. Melting things
on that scale beats the yo-yo I stoved to goo
and a spanking, someone
needs to come along and send us to bed
without supper. In our defense
we’re stupid, gullible, smelly, we’re not
stupid, that was mean and categorical,
we’re wired and emblazoned and impressed
by the singing of birds who are merely
shuttling air from one spot to another, holding it
as we do each other in a waltz
to let it go further on, where it must fend
for itself. These bits of song-air
and dance are changed forever, everything
is changed forever all the time, I’m not here,
I’m up ahead, running with my arms thrown back
to embrace how mild life seemed
when I first noticed light coming to rest
on my mother’s face. Creatures
who generally have trouble with story problems
may not be the organisms one should ask
to anticipate global warming. A car
about to to be started in Poughkeepsie
is the tipping point, after that, all is fire
and water, all is lost: do you
shoot the driver, learn the backstroke,
enjoy long walks into the high ground?
I keep returning to the ice caps,
their vast calvings in my mind, TV stars
of our dissolution, my head
thunderous and cold and too small
for their wounds but well-suited
to my hair. The debate as I understand it:
it’s too late, it’s not too late. Smart people
agree we’re not that smart. Here are clouds again,
telling me they make this up as they go.
If we don’t owe it to ourselves to fix
what we’ve broken, we owe it to ponies.
That was manipulative, but I love ponies,
how they let our children
ride them in circles with helmets on in case
the circles fall.

~ Bob Hicok

Slim Paperback Three: The Professor’s House

First of all, I know I skipped Slim Paperback Two. Don’t worry, I’ll be going back for it. I just felt more like writing about this book first.

A couple weeks ago I read Litlove’s thoughts on Willa Cather (which as usual were inviting and perceptive) and though I didn’t act on it immediately, the thought of reading a Cather novel lodged itself somewhere in my head. Last week, when I found myself yet again flipping though my To Be Read pile, I came across The Professor’s House, and I shoved it into my bag with three or four other books before heading out to a favorite coffee shop. Then I sat for hours, reading, writing and talking with a couple of friends, The Professor’s House lying beneath my notebook on the table in front of me.

For some reason I found myself hesitating to pick it up and begin, likely worried it would disappoint me and that it wasn’t actually the book I wanted or needed. This was foolish of me. I started the book that evening, back in my apartment, and read the first hundred pages or straight through, and then finished the novel the next day. Last year, when I went through a brief and terrible stint of not reading any fiction, a Dover Thrift Edition of Cather’s My Ántonia (found in the English language section of a FNAC in Nice) mesmerized and reinvigorated my mind. I shouldn’t have doubted that anything of Cather’s wouldn’t be something I’d want to read. Of her extensive oeuvre, My Ántonia and O Pioneers! are the only two I’ve read. The Professor’s House is very different from both of those books, and yet it was so distinctly the product of the same writer that I felt while reading it very much on familiar ground.

Both O, Pioneers! and My Ántonia take place in the great plains, among immigrant families forming new communities in the broad, flat lands that make up the center of this country. The Professor’s House, on the other hand, takes place in a college town near Lake Michigan, and has a plot line featuring the cattle ranges and mesas of the American southwest. The characters in this book were different too—more erudite and more moneyed (the offspring, perhaps, of the characters who leave the farming communities at the end of her other novels) and yet many of this book’s concerns—Cather’s concerns, I suppose—remain the same: roots and rootlessness, solitude, nature, aging, death, and the effects that a single, wholly remarkable and magnetic human being can have on all of those around him or her.

What I love about Cather’s writing is the way its superficial simplicity and placidity overlays deep and dynamic tensions between people and within individual minds. The major conflict in The Professor’s House seems a relatively benign one: an aging Professor, Godfrey St. Peter, is loath to abandon the cramped attic room where he has written for decades, and he refuses to move himself into the spacious new house where his wife and all the rest of his belongings now live. But his refusal to move is not mere obstinacy. Rather, it is generated by a deep and intensifying misanthropy, connected to the Professor’s general disillusionment with human relations. This disillusionment springs in large part from the death of his one stellar pupil, Tom Outland, a young man from the Southwest who died fighting in World War I.

Cather has a knack for writing characters—particularly narrators—who are engaging and booksmart but whom I don’t really like…or at least, whom I don’t really like all that much. Often she uses these narrators as framing devices for other, more magnetic characters, as she does with Jim Burden, who narrates My Ántonia. St. Peter is such a narrator as well—definitely flawed, both as a man and as an observer of others. Funny for me to say this, I guess, but I had to come to terms with his solipsism, to focus on his fear of nearing the end of what he feels has been an partially un-lived life, and I had to find a way to sympathize with the loneliness he in large part brings upon himself, in order not to despise him a little for his stubborn passivity, his refusal to engage, his detached, almost entirely affectionless treatment of his wife and daughters.

But I did ultimately feel for St. Peter, in large part because of the things that Cather manages to impart through his narration but beneath the level of his own conscious awareness. This is another great gift of Cather’s as a writer, a little reminiscent of what Kazuo Ishiguro does in The Remains of the Day. There’s a slightly strange and beautiful scene at the beginning of the novel where St. John blocks the door to his attic workspace so that Augusta, his family’s seamstress, can’t remove the wooden and wire-frame forms she uses for dressmaking from the space he has shared with her for years. There’s something about the image of the handsome, greying Professor, in his cramped garrett full of books, refusing to let go of an empty and inanimate female figure, in the presence of a living, breathing woman for whom he has never expressed his love. It’s a moment so full of reserved and melancholy passion that I think it contains nearly as strong a declaration of love as when, toward the end of the book, St. Peter talks about the difference between his love for his wife and his love for Tom Outland. He says that “he had had two romances: one of the heart, which had filled his life for many years, and the second of the mind—of the imagination.” The pluperfect “had had” here is so repetitively final: both of these romances are over, and all St. Peter has left (or all he feels he has left) is the loss of them, particularly the loss of the latter.

I guess one of the questions this book made me consider is when someone you love a great deal dies, what happens to all of your affection for them? Where does it go? What do you do with it? And how does it change all of your other affections, perhaps particularly the more minor ones? What does it do to your ability to love less passionately, or your ability to love anyone else, including yourself?

The Professor’s House threatens one tragic ending, and then produces another quieter conclusion that is perhaps just as somber. There’s a lingering note of ambiguity to the book’s ending that for me, at least, strengthens the novel as a whole. But I’ll leave that for you to discover on your own, should you so choose.


Usually I think of winter as the time to dig into long novels. Most of the lengthiest books I’ve ever read I undertook between November and March, and though I read Dead Souls in late December (and liked it a lot) since then I’ve found that I can’t make it past the second chapter of any book longer than 400 pages. I put a lot of weight on how well or how poorly I’m reading (and writing) as a measurement of my overall mental state, so it actually does worry me when reading doesn’t come easily.

A friend of mine said to me today that she’s been failing to get through The Pickwick Papers, and she thinks this is partially due to the fact that it’s just not the kind of book one can read ten pages of at a time. There’s definitely some comforting truth to this—some books you’re meant to be immersed in, sixty-plus pages at a time. To read them in three page sips then, is to miss the immersion altogether. Even I can’t usually find time in my day to read for a steady hour and a half.

Another explanation might be that I’m just trying to read the wrong six hundred page books, but after my discard pile stacked up to my knees, I began to assume there was something more at the root of my inability to read at length than merely poor selection.

Right now, I’d say the problem is February. But if this is still going on in March, I suppose I’ll have to reassess.

The upside of not being able to read anything that weighs more than eight ounces has been that I’ve been racing through some shorter fiction, essays, and even some plays. I find that when I’m struggling to make it past the first two paragraphs of anything, I return to my favorite writers because I have faith their books will take me in—that they’ll both shelter and engross me—so over the past two weeks I’ve gone back to Vonnegut, Murdoch, Shakespeare and Calvin and Hobbes.

I’ll be writing a bit more about these books shortly—stay tuned for posts about slim paperbacks numbers one, two and three (with four and five in the offing).