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When I first read Barnes’ ‘History of the World in Ten and a Half Chapters,’ I remember being captivated and slightly agitated at why this name is not as popular as the other popular names on the literary scene. Of course I was naïve in college and wasn’t quite exposed to the British media that hailed him as a true genius. When a good friend and then colleague recommended Barnes and lent the book, I was already thrilled as my friend usually gives me a blurb and always only recommends great books, ten years later when he handed me another book by the same Barnes, I didn’t need a blurb, I trusted it was going to be extraordinary.
As I flipped through the pages of ‘The Sense of an Ending,’ after admiring the cover considerably, looking up the artist and knowing the story behind the design, I was transported to ten years earlier when the language of this writer brought me great excitement – the clever, crisp and amusing weaving of words in a very British yet unique Barnesian style gives me the same thrill as watching the Wimbledon, not just the game alone but all things surrounding it, the weather, the commentary, the well-dressed spectators. Barnes is a great package of intellect, Britishness and wisdom – this is needless to say and even more useless to come from a nondescript reader as I.
The book begins in one of my favourite settings, a London school – not quite the Bluecoats type as the four boys Alex, Colin, Tony didn’t seem clever enough or romantic and depressed enough to qualify as Bluecoat boys, though Adrian does. The story of very regular, English school boys that study the likes of Wittgenstein and Baudelaire, to be able to quote them. Adrian however, as the writer intends to portray, is a deep philosophical man whose pondering over Camus’ philosophy haunts the reader through the end ‘Suicide is the only true philosophical question,’ recollects Adrian citing Camus. A part of me was great pleased that Barnes chose Camus for Adrian’s portrayal instead of the all too familiar Kafka or Proust.
As I read through the story, having already looked up the plot and depriving myself of any chances of thinking high of the slow unraveling of the plot, I grew increasingly restless and irritated for many reasons and not even Barnes stupendous language could keep me from this restlessness. I couldn’t help wonder, ‘where’s Barnes’ genius?!’ Suicide could be the only true philosophical thought and Robson’s suicide does make the reader wonder if that’s true though the boys consider it an absolute waste – with the death of Adrian in the same way as Robson, Barnes genius manages to inspire the reader to think of both suicides in different planes despite the stark similarity of events in both cases. Adrian’s suicide note is perhaps the best note I have ever read, almost making me wonder if I could use the same to justify any such act by me for its resonance with the shared truth of every human life. I could say what Adrian says in his note #bestsuicidenoteever.
The philosophy of growing old, of looking back in time and of the younger self meeting and shocking the older self is all wonderful but Tony’s hurried growth, the description of forty years of his life is in a way unconvincing and in another way, for its literary image construction– quite brilliant. However, the same extent of description of Tony’s lime tree is confusing, bordering on irritation.
This observation doesn’t come from any feminist inclination, I believe Tony’s estimation of Veronica is horribly biased as even the character realizes late in the book. However, Tony does little introspection on his absurd bias against Veronica in addition to sympathizing her merely because she, as he believes, is mother of a mentally challenged child. This doesn’t justify anything. Veronica is portrayed as difficult, manipulative, stressful woman, why? I am not convinced that her refusing to get intimate with Tony and then getting intimate with him post their break up is a manipulative act, it’s a little too judgemental and unfair. Tony only assumes things about Veronica and is offended when they seem untrue – that doesn’t seem like Veronica’s fault. Also, Tony is intimidated with Veronica’s honest expression of a distate for the classics that he is fond of, this again isn’t enough to judge Veronica. What is however ridiculous about the character is her repetitive accusation of Tony not getting it.
This makes little sense to me. How is one supposed to get anything at all if it is not communicated and comes as quite a puzzling surprise forty years later. I cannot, as a reader convince myself that Veronica is difficult because she’s bold and is unafraid of making her choices and therefore won’t empathize with Tony and talk to him as a mature adult would? I mean, who does that?! If Veronica can be clear in her email communication about her mother’s last days, isn’t it understandable that she’d also be patient with Tony and tell him the story behind the strange will?
The greatest pleasure for me came through the tiny bits of London sprinkled here and there – the Northern line, the Wobbly bridge meeting, the touristy day and pictures Trafalgar and my personal highlight of the book – the Severn Bore.
I have read reader’s reviews and their guesses on what it is that Tony may not be getting – that it is perhaps Veronica’s mother that Adrian impregnated. For the gift of imagination and the absurdity that guessing allows, I’d guess that Adrian killed himself because he thought he got Veronica pregnant while in truth, Tony’s the real father of the child – thereby shattering all the peace his life’s tried to build over the last 40 years, rendering his peacability useless? (cruel, no?), and perhaps Adrian went to Veronica’s mum and found a mother in her, confessed to her his decision to kill himself and perhaps she, Veronica’s mum helped him in the act of slitting his wrists? Sorry!