by Bernie Langs
The three current kingpins of British literature are, in my opinion, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes. In the past I have enjoyed novels by all three, reveling in their tragedies and comedies filled with satire, sarcasm, wit, fine prose, elegance, and decadence, all in the continued tradition of masters such as Saul Bellows and, dare I say, the mighty Vladimir Nabokov. Then I threw all three under the bus and turned away from fiction completely, with the exception of the writings of the Austrian Thomas Bernhard.
I find myself wondering if my complete turn to non-fiction is related to my having worked a decade at The Rockefeller University. Non-fiction is a compilation and compounding of facts—pure, simple (or not so simple) truths, or at least educated hypotheses. But when a friend mailed me a copy of The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes, I did feel, in the words of Monty Python’s John Cleese, “a bit pokish” about reading it. If there was one recent novel that had intrigued me, it was this one, since it had garnered very good notices from the press.
I don’t know if it’s fair to put the genre of fiction itself on trial here based on reading one book, but as I read, that was what I continued to do. I read Barnes’s book in one day, sitting at home, without power, during the recent hurricane. As I read, I continuously wondered if the fact that I couldn’t put the book down meant that I liked it. Maybe that’s the rub. After years of struggling with non-fiction, was this book a comparable meal of easy fast food in contrast to the gourmet multi-course banquets upon which I’ve been recently feeding? Was this intellectual Doritos?
A Sense of an Ending is a tale and a moral examination of the act of remembrance. The protagonist, Tony Webster, now middle-aged, is looking back on his life; mysteries of life and death and relationships emerge, at first, in a very casual manner. I was struck by how his reminiscences were colorless and lacking in detail, not realizing that Barnes was playing with me, toying with his reader. In the later portion of the novel, he begins to fill in the details; as his sentences grew in texture and color, I begun to turn the pages faster and faster to figure out the truth of Tony’s life.
So, after a casual saunter, the book takes off at a full gallop and comes to a complete crescendo in the last pages. Is there anything wrong with this? What’s the problem? My disillusionment with novels began with Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam, also a page-turner. I resented how everything folded together like a Seinfeld episode at the end, especially since I had adored another book of his, Atonement. Many years ago, I read Kazuo Ishiguro’s tale of a repressed English butler, The Remains of the Day. The main character, Stevens, tells his story in a perfectly proper British tone, but that tone breaks at the end in one perfect sentence on love. I was absolutely amazed at that turn of style in the book. This was accomplished by the prose itself, not by a plot element. That was a much more fulfilling artistic peak.
All this said, are there more novels in my future to be read? Of course. Novels educate on the vagaries, the depths and whims of life, and help round out our emotional dictionaries in ways that non-fiction can’t. And yes, they are more than an intellectual snack. I look forward to more books from our friends across the pond.