The Sense of an Ending

Michael Wood writes:

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.

(LRB 22 September 2011)

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