September 13, 2012 Book Club Meeting Notes

Recollections of the Meeting of the Bryn Mawr Book
Group on

Thursday, September 13, 2012

for The Sense of an Ending by
Julian Barnes

with Roo Dane (hosting), Linda Holiner, Anne Ipsen,  Sandra Lovell, Dorianne Low, Sydney Owens, and myself.

In the first place, kudos to those who come from and/or return to distant places to attend our meetings. We hope it is worth it – your presence certainly augments the experience of us locals.

In the second place, SPOILER ALERT – You must finish the book in order to understand anything in its pages. And then, it is still ambiguous. An ending – not the ending. How many are there, or might have been? Why was Adrian happy at the end? Or was he? The chicken and egg conundrum had to be grappled with.

We met on the day following resurgent demonstrations of the Arab spring, triggered by the anti-Islamic movie resulting in the death of the American Ambassador to Libya and the attacks on various US Embassies. We seem to be in the midst of a paradigm shift in the world, similar to the progeny of Abraham, the industrial revolution, the Communist enterprise, the internet playing-field leveler, up to the Third World War (which I believe we are already in, like the 100 years war only identifiable after the fact). We’ll see. It’s vaster than just the next election or the next fatwa.

“So,” remarked one reader, “this is one more ’60s-era boy-thing coming of age, this time in England, so why should I care about this very ordinary protagonist?” Is Tony, our narcissistic narrator recording the 1960s life of (aspiring) upper-class public-school England, the protagonist?
Votes are recorded for Veronica – the user – or the used?; for Adrian, for whom suicide was the only philosophically honest action. But we’re given Tony, who is trivial in the way most of us or, at the end, unimportant. We were reminded of Nick in The Great Gatsby, the not quite neutral observer, narrator but not protagonist.

Barnes plays the avuncular narrator here, applying history to his youthful activities, although he’s not too sure it’s wisdom or genetics that guide his insights. I personally found the narration querulous and hovering between provocative and boring, kitchen-table philosophy late into the night, dragging over old material for the sake of filling the silence. By the end of Part I, I was nearly convinced I was reading a shaggy dog story, going nowhere.
But Part II came along with new events and revelations. Barnes writes well, even when he is being deliberately obfuscating. Part of the charm? By the end I was looking forward to the next book.

Tony and everyone else is pretty much down, negative, depressing, not pleased with their lives. Somehow the American joy of flower power did not translate to GB. The sexual revolution of the 60s did not remove the shame inherited from earlier centuries of pregnancy out of wedlock. Rape => shame. What is surprising in the early narrative is that it is not the girl but the young father, a classmate of the band of four, who takes his own life, apologizing to his ‘Mum.” Later we learn of another, more tragic result of intercourse gone awry, a distorted echo of that earlier finality.

Some of us women experienced discomfort with the callousness of the  men’s callowness (cf. “The Office”),  heads never out of assholes; the ambiguousness of fatherhood (afraid of death – or of the perambulator in the stairwell?). The women in this book are not much more than ciphers, appearing and disappearing as useful. All the characters are somehow unfulfilled, faced with the choice of accepting or repulsing the comfort of  understanding, of detachment, of mortality.

Mortality and memory enter into Barnes’s meditations, and one would not be surprised to see another book on these subjects even more deeply researched in his own meditations. He tells us that life wears us down until we realize that it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Has he given up? Or is he guiding us – and himself – to another landing place?

Good Reading to all –

Cornelia/ Corny