The Sense of an Ending

Michael Wood writes:

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.’

(LRB 22 September 2011)

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