Stupidly English

Michael Wood

  • BuyThe Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
    Cape, 150 pp, £12.99, July 2011, ISBN 978 0 224 09415 3

Julian Barnes specialises in Englishness the way some doctors specialise in broken bones or damaged nerves. Like many actual English people, he’s not a chronic sufferer from the complaint, which in any case is a matter more of temperament than passport. But he is endlessly fascinated by it, and no one knows the dark, quiet corners of its pathology better than he does. We can think for a start of the brilliant satire of his novel England, England – though Barnes himself says he feels ‘awkward’ about the term ‘satire’ and prefers ‘semi-farce’ – or the four lampoons of English after-dinner talk that appear in his recent story collection, Pulse, under the title ‘At Phil and Joanna’s’. Of course it is very English to feel awkward about satire (or anything) and to go for the semi rather than the full or final; and the characters in Pulse parody themselves as much as they are parodied. One of them says: ‘I think jokes are a good way of being serious. Often the best way.’ The token American in the group says, ‘Only an Englishman would think that, or say that,’ and the first speaker replies: ‘Are you wanting me to apologise for being English, or something?’ It doesn’t matter that the American is wrong – there are plenty of serious American jokes – since what is interesting here are the stereotypical national stakes: what looks like modesty or evasion, we say, is a way of getting at what’s important; carefully forgotten is how often, even for us, modesty is just a failure of nerve and evasion just evasion. The narrator of The Sense of an Ending is categorical about the second possibility: ‘We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imagined we were being responsible but were only being cowardly. What we called realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things rather than facing them.’

It’s not always easy to tell style from symptom in Barnes, the irony he needs for his writing from the irony that is his characters’ pride and weakness. Even his memoir, Nothing to Be Frightened of, which is full of French authors and stories, and has wonderfully crafted phrases like ‘secular shriving’ and ‘this rented world’, takes care to sprinkle the text with words like ‘blokes’ and ‘chums’ and ‘rowdy’ – as if to remind us that he is still in touch with the linguistic terroir, not getting above himself. In the same book he says that when England ‘is abused, a dormant, not to say narcoleptic patriotism stirs’ in him. Narcoleptic or not, this mood makes for a calculated, intricate ambivalence that has been sustained over a long time. It’s a terrific surprise, therefore, to find Barnes, in The Sense of Ending, coming out against Englishness – as the enemy of life, love and any sort of contact with the world that is not self-protective and self-regarding. The sentences I have already quoted from the book may begin to give an idea of how fierce this attack and this regret can be.

There is a clue to this development in a magnificent piece in Pulse called ‘Marriage Lines’ – though I confess the clue was easier to see because I read the novel before I read the story. A man whose wife has died (‘he knew he must start getting used to the singular pronoun’ is how he puts it to himself) returns to a Scottish island where they spent many holidays, planning a bit of orderly mourning for himself, doing without his wife what he used to do with her, getting used to the pronoun. As he is leaving, his Scottish friend buys him some postcards. ‘You will be needing the memory,’ he says, and the protagonist realises at once that he will not be coming back to the island, that he doesn’t know at all what he will be doing with the rest of his life. He weeps for ‘his own stupidity. His presumption too.’ This is how the story ends:

He had thought he could recapture, and begin to say farewell. He had thought that grief might be assuaged, or if not assuaged, at least speeded up, hurried on its way a little … But he was not in charge of grief. Grief was in charge of him. And in the months and years ahead, he expected grief to teach him many other things as well. This was just the first of them.

Of course the misunderstanding of grief is not peculiar to Englishness, but Barnes does suggest, through the use of the words ‘stupidly’, ‘stupid’ and ‘stupidity’, that a certain self-admiring obtuseness, which if not restricted to England has one of its main headquarters here, can do far more harm than we like to imagine. Earlier in the story the protagonist says his Scottish friends treated him ‘with a tact and modesty he had once, stupidly, Englishly, mistaken for deference’. Part of the stupidity – that elusive stupidity of intelligent people – is of course the English belief that such deference was merely his due.

The Sense of an Ending is the story of an obtuseness that generally cannot see the damage it does, and yet in a brief moment of illumination grasps the malevolence lurking in what it took to be its quiet life. Does the illumination last? I would like to believe it does. But it expresses itself in the last pages with an irony and a discretion that would serve just as well to hide the illumination as to sustain it. Another way of describing the novel would be to say it is a study of what Wittgenstein – who is quoted and imitated by the clever schoolboys in the book – would have called the grammar of the word ‘life’. School, for example, is not life, it is where you wait for it. When we meet those schoolboys they are ‘beginning to imagine [their] escape from school into life’, waiting to be ‘released into [their] lives’; they remember their schooldays as ‘back before our lives began’. But then what the narrator calls the ‘stagnancy’ of those days was not the prelude to anything except more stagnancy. In what looks like a bit of narrative perversity or a joke on the idea of a novel, he moves his story from the time he left university (‘and started work as a trainee in arts administration’) to the time he retired, including jobs, marriage, divorce, a grown-up daughter, in five shortish paragraphs, ending with the remark: ‘And that’s a life, isn’t it?’ The answer is yes, but only if you’re trying very hard not to have one. The book still has nearly a hundred pages to go. The device is not a joke, though, or if it is, it’s a serious one. It’s an enactment of what there is to say about such a life. School and university were where whatever happened to this man happened, and the rest of the book concerns his attempt to make sense of certain events of his youth, and their long-term, continuing consequences. ‘I had wanted life not to bother me too much,’ he says. And: ‘What did I know of life, who had lived so carefully?’

There are echoes of Hardy here, who wrote a poem beginning ‘For life I had never cared greatly,’ and of James, whose ‘The Beast in the Jungle’ is the tale of a man who missed his life by living it the way he did. But Barnes goes one subtle step further. One can wish to deprive oneself of bother, and of what the narrator, in one of his moments of half-consciousness of what is going on, calls ‘damage’. One can even succeed, in one’s own view. But then what about others, the people around you? The narrator worries about this belatedly, but still keeps getting most things wrong. Is he responsible for his friend’s suicide, for the birth of a retarded child? He can think about this question in his way, while enduring ‘a special kind of remorse: a hurt inflicted at long last on one who always thought he knew how to avoid being hurt’. But he is still thinking only of his own hurt, and of course the remorse is special because it’s his. And although responsibility in such matters is a vast issue, and one the boys talked about a lot in their history lessons in school, it is not actually what is at stake here. What is centrally at stake is not the damage the narrator’s malevolence has or has not caused, but the sheer force of this malevolence, and the fact that he doesn’t notice it or remember it. The sadness of his missed life as a ‘peaceable’ person is completely overwhelmed by the horrible violence of his unkindness. He didn’t miss this piece of his life, he repressed it, and may be semi-repressing it at the end.

A schoolfriend, Adrian, takes up with a girl our narrator, Tony, has been seeing while at university, and writes an awkward but well-intentioned letter asking Tony’s permission to continue with the romance. Tony responds first with a postcard of the Clifton Suspension Bridge, scene of many suicides, but his message says only that the new relation is fine with him. Then a few weeks later he answers Adrian’s letter ‘properly’:

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, because in my opinion Veronica had suffered damage a long way back. Then I wished him good luck, burned his letter in an empty grate (melodramatic, I agree, but I plead youth as a mitigating circumstance), and decided that the two of them were out of my life for ever.

Adrian commits suicide a few months later, and many years later – after his ‘life’ – Tony receives some papers of Adrian’s that had been kept by the girlfriend’s family, including a Tractatus-style meditation on responsibility and the accumulation of events, and a little later, a copy of his own old letter. I won’t quote much of it, because the full shock is in the patient, self-pleasing prose, and Tony’s delight in his inventive nastiness, all of which he has ‘forgotten’, but I need to give a quick sense of it. It contains phrases like, ‘I hope you get so involved that the mutual damage will be permanent … I hope … you are left with a lifetime of bitterness … Part of me hopes you’ll have a child, because I’m a great believer in time’s revenge,’ and it ends: ‘May the acid rain fall on your joint and anointed heads.’ The plot of the novel suggests, very faintly, that the letter has the force of a curse, but we are not, actually, in the Gothic world such a result would require. We are only in a pale English world where the Gothic is literally unthinkable – in other words, as we have known since Northanger Abbey, in a world where the non-literal Gothic is bound to proliferate.

Of course Tony understands the horror of his gesture when he gets the letter back, and can’t recall why he had ‘reacted by going nuclear’. He wasn’t in love with the girl, she had just made him feel bad. But he doesn’t understand what this retrospective illumination does to his idea of his life, and perhaps no one in his situation could. The hope would be that he understands finally what it is not to understand, and this is how I read the cool last sentences of the book: ‘There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest.’ He can’t speak about important matters, even now, except by making a sort of joke, and by using the language of others. The first two sentences here refer to Adrian’s philosophical treatise, and the second two to a moment at school when the class dimwit was asked to characterise what happened in the reign of Henry VIII. He racked his brains and said: ‘There was unrest, sir.’ The teacher, ‘almost’ smiling, asked him if he would care to elaborate. The boy took some time, and then said: ‘I’d say there was great unrest, sir.’ Is Tony ironically miming his own helplessness, or is he taking refuge in an old and comfortable evasion? Could he be doing both? It would be good to think there are intelligent ways of being stupidly English.