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.



What I Was Reading: Contemporary Women’s Fiction about War

In August, I signed up to read several books available to book bloggers via Crazy Book Tours. The novels I selected caught my attention because they were all examples of contemporary women’s fiction dealing with war. I did my undergraduate thesis on women’s war writing, and the relationships between women, writing, and war continue to fascinate and (sometimes) overwhelm me. I thought that reading some contemporary literary fiction about women in wartime would be thought-provoking and maybe even enjoyable…so I signed up to read the debut novel of British writer, Catherine Hall, Days of Grace, Daphne Kalotry’s first novel, Russian Winter, and Sarah Blake’s The Postmistress.

I thought the books would arrive over the course of a few leisurely weeks, a month even, and that I’d have time to write and reflect on each of them. I also assumed that I’d want to (write and reflect on them, that is). But the three books arrived within a week of each other, I found myself suddenly (and really happily) employed. Though I read the first two quite speedily, when I tried to start The Postmistress, my brain gave me one of those messages I’m becoming more and more attentive to, where I read a few paragraphs of a novel, maybe a few chapters even, and then my brain says “You don’t need this to be one of the books you read in your life. It doesn’t need a place on that ultimate shelf.” And so I stopped reading The Postmistress, through no fault of the book’s own other than my overdose on contemporary fiction and it’s failure to captivate me (which is not an uncommon one).

And when I stopped reading The Postmistress, I also stopped preparing the piece i was writing comparing the three novels to one another. And I never started it again. So now I’m writing it, and I’ll begin with the book I read first, Catherine Hall’s Days of Grace. The publicity material sent out by Viking compares Days of Grace to the writing of Sarah Waters (whose book, The Little Stranger, I wrote about in May, and whose novel, The Night Watch, set during World War II, was utterly compelling), to Ian McEwan’s Atonement, and to the lovely novel by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

I don’t think Hall’s debut quite stands up to these lofty comparisons. The book displays neither Waters’ magical ability to evoke the world of another historical period, nor Atonement’s graceful interweaving of past and present and of fact and fiction, and nor does it have the joyful, literature-loving , letter-writing cast of characters that made The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society so memorable.

Days of Grace tells the story of Nora Lynch, a girl from a poor neighborhood of London who is sent to live in the English countryside during WWI. She is taken in by Rev. and Mrs. Rivers and their daughter, Grace, who is the same age as Nora. Hall’s narrative moves between Nora’s early adolescence while she lives out the war with the Rivers family in Kent, and her post-war present day (yes, our present day) life as an old, ill woman living alone in London.

I found the beginning of the book a bit heavy-handed, and the narrative shifts between the 1940s and the modern day initially made it difficult for me to feel drawn into the world of the novel. But as the novel progressed, the characters, especially Nora and the irrepressible, golden-haired Grace, came to life. Particularly strong is Hall’s rendering of Nora’s awakening sexuality and her passionate adoration of and intense attraction to Grace, her desire to touch her, to love her, and her deep-seated belief that her feelings are wrong, sinful, and worst of all, responsible for all of the evil and loss whose true causes remain hidden within the complicated backdrop of the war itself, and the motivations which compel man against man.

What I liked best about this book (and it’s a rather grim thing to have liked best) is that Hall doesn’t flinch in her depiction of Nora’s self-loathing. Throughout the novel, Hall conveys Nora’s hatred of her uncontrollable attraction to the fair-haired, charismatic Grace (and presumably, later on, to other women) as Nora herself sees it: as a disease which burns within her, an evil that begins in the novel’s first chapter when Nora gets her period for the first time on the train from London to Kent, and which continues through the novel’s final chapters, when Nora succumbs slowly and painfully to what the reader is left to assume is terminal and untreated cervical cancer.

The connections Hall creates between the physical maturation of moving from girlhood to womanhood, between the “Curse” of menstruation, the womb, and the eventual tumor-filled pain of cervical cancer are cuttingly clear: for Nora, not only her attraction to other women, but her womanhood itself, is a curse. Hall doesn’t write tentatively, which I admire. I’ll be interested to see what she writes in the future.

Structurally, Daphne Kalotay’s Russian Winter contains some striking resemblances to Days of Grace. The novel moves between two narratives, one taking place in post-World War II soviet Moscow, the other in modern Boston. And the central character is, again, a woman, who in the earlier narrative is young and healthy, and in the latter is old and ill, and hiding a secret buried in the depths of her past.

In 1950s Moscow, Nina Revskaya is a ballerina, the star of the Bolshoi Ballet, and in love with a young poet, Victor Elsin. In the present, Nina is an old woman living in Boston, the city in which she ultimately arrived after defecting from the Soviet Union, leaving behind her husband, who was executed shortly after her defection. Her body, once strong and lithe, is torturing her with pain and immobility.

She has decided to auction off her jewels, many of which were gifts, some of which were smuggled from Russia nearly half a century ago, and the auction catches the eye of a professor of poetry, Grigori Solodin, who is the lone translator of Revskaya’s husband’s work. Solodin and Revskaya share a past that neither of them fully understands, and the novel moves gracefully between past and present, slowly revealing the complicated truth of their connection, a story full of love, betrayal, friendship, and fear.

My favorite parts of the novel are the descriptions of Revskaya’s life as a ballerina with the Bolshoi Ballet, of the life of the theatre, and of artists in soviet Moscow, a world of composers, poets, and dancers, living and creating under soviet rule. I love the questions the novel investigates, concerning art, truth, politics, love and loss. I love the richness of Kalotry’s characters, and the way her narrative moves easily between their minds, giving the novel a depth that Days of Grace, told entirely from Nora’s point of view, fails to achieve.

I’d recommend Russian Winter to anyone who loves ballet, anyone looking to read a rich and moving novel, and anyone interested in reading fiction about the experience of being in artist in a country where one’s artistic expression is so closely monitored and controlled by the political regime. I really enjoyed Russian Winter. I think it’s just been published this month, and I hope it does well.

And as for The Postmistress, like I said, I read a few paragraphs, and decided it was a book I just didn’t need to read. I can’t say it would be that way for you…you might love The Postmistress. I can only  say that when you encounter books like that, books you just don’t feel compelled to read, no matter how highly recommended they come, no matter how much you feel like you really should read it, and more than that, really should love it and think it’s the best thing ever, follow your instincts. Put it down, and read something else. If it’s really something you’re meant to read, you’ll come back to it, or it will come back to you. Otherwise, life’s too short. Too many books, not enough time.

What I’m Reading: The Little Stranger

Judging by my posts, it might appear that for the last month or so I’ve read nothing but poetry, and there is a certain amount of truth to this. I certainly spent National Poetry Month reading far more poetry than usual, and, in the middle of April, I did try to go for a while without reading any fiction, in the hopes that I’d finish a few non-fiction books I was in the middle of, and that I’d avoid purchasing more books to pack or ship home to the US. My “no-fiction” kick was an absolute disaster: within days I felt remarkably and undeniably close to misery, a douleur which only abated once I’d headed to the English-language section of the nearest FNAC and purchased several books, including King Lear. When reading King Lear cheers you up, you know something was really, really wrong. So no more breaks from fiction for me: I’m addicted, and I accept it (in fact, I embrace it, after the fashion of this “Bookaholic” post from one of my favorite literary blogs, Tales from the Reading Room).

Last week I read The Little Stranger by British author Sarah Waters. The novel was short-listed for last year’s Man Booker Prize* (it lost to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall) and Waters wrote The Night Watch, a book I read last summer which absolutely floored me with the beauty of its prose and the truth of its characters. The Night Watch is set in London, during the Blitz, while The Little Stranger is set in rural post-WWII England. The book is narrated by a doctor from Warwickshire, who reveals, in his ponderously rational, and helplessly self-conscious way, his relationship with a once grand, but now deteriorating neighborhood estate called Hundreds Hall and its inhabitants, the Ayres family.

Waters choice to narrate the novel through the voice of Doctor Farraday places, at the center of this book about deterioration and decay, a man who has effaced himself. Farraday comes from a lower class family—his mother worked as a nursery made at Hundreds Hall—and his parents sacrificed everything to put him through medical school. But success for him required that he erase his accent, his manners, and in large part his memories, or at least his attachments to them. He lives a lonely life—an aging bachelor whose hard-won status within his profession, like everything else following the war, is changing.

To me, this novel is in part about being cheated. Doctor Farraday has given up his inherited identity and worked so hard all for some dream of social ascension which is, unfortunately, inextricably linked to the crumbling manner house, and the people within it. Hundreds Hall is a remnant of an England that no longer exists, and the house itself appears as destined for complete ruin as Roderick, its young squire, who returned from the war scarred and crippled to an estate the demands the last of his youth and energy. Through Roderick and through the medical discourse Waters is able to introduce into the narrative quite naturally through Doctor Farraday and his colleagues, The Little Stranger seems to play a bit upon the accepted narrative of shell shock and PTSD, suggesting that the horrors of war may not be just “of war,” but rather horrors, more generally. Horrors of humanity. The divide between rationality and irrationality and between sanity and insanity is  maintained—defensively and at great cost—by Farraday, even as the world around him becomes murkier and murkier and he himself becomes more and more entrenched in the spooky and unnatural happenings at Hundreds Hall.

Sarah Waters is a really gifted writer, and she brings alive historical settings in a way that I imagine is both indicative of her talent and of an immense amount of research. This book is long, and though some sections seemed to drag on a little slowly, I read the novel quickly and easily. Some of Waters’ descriptions are stunning and unsettling in their precision, and I think in its best moments this book manages to be both forceful and subtle at the same time, which is not an easy feat.

I recently saw a production of Macbeth at the Globe, and being a huge geek I attended an introductory lecture by a Cambridge professor beforehand. She quoted several people (including I think Charles Lamb and Oscar Wilde) who have said that it is nearly impossible to stage Macbeth in a way that does the suspenseful intensity of the text justice, because people no longer believe in witches. In the age of Hollywood mega-thrillers, with loads of violence and the inevitable (and therefore often predictable) “final twist,” something similar, I suppose, could be said of ghosts and ghost stories. But Waters’ haunting of Hundreds Hall in The Little Stranger becomes all the more sinister in that it isn’t overdone. The suggestions of something malevolent and supernatural are clear, but they are only suggestions—dark possibilities so hauntingly human as to out—terrifying even the most vindictive of phantom forces. As Water’s subtly underscores with The Little Stranger‘s final image, our ghosts are all the more haunting in their ambiguity, especially when we recognize in them ghastly but genuine reflections of ourselves.

*The Man Booker Prize is awarded each year to the best novel–as voted upon by a panel of judges–written by a writer who is a citizen of the British Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland.

If you liked The Little Stranger: I really enjoyed Waters’ novel The Night Watch, which is set in the wartime London of the 1940s. For something more in the “ghostly” vein, try Shirley Jackson or Edgar Allen Poe, or of course Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.