Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The sense of a thin book

I am always taken aback when I hear a fellow reader declare that he/she doesn't like thick books. Isn't that as silly as saying you don't like fat friends? Just imagine how boring your life would be if all your books and all your friends were perfectly slim!

My books are my friends and, like my real living friends, I like them in all shapes and shades: thin and fat and in-between, old and young, sad and serious and funny, easy-going and difficult-to-understand... Variety really is the spice of reading and of friendship.

Different books, like different friends, correspond to different moods and needs. At home, especially in winter, I love to relax next to the fireplace with a glass of red wine and a big, fat, swirling, overwhelming novel. In summer, especially when I travel, I tend to go for small, slight books, often volumes of poetry or short stories, for obvious practical reasons. I'm not talking of e-books, of course, I'm talking of real paper books with which I can travel lightly, books I can read on a deserted beach, in a foamy bath, on the deck of a yacht, in a tent by the light of a torch or next to a ridiculously crowded swimming pool. To name but a few of the places I've found myself reading during recent summer holidays.

And sometimes I stumble upon a really thin, practically perfect little novel that turns ordinary summer reading into an extraordinary experience. The Vintage paperback copy of Julian Barnes's The Sense of an Ending, which I read outside during a heat wave last weekend, has only 150 pages - but oh, what wonders await the reader on almost every page! 'Barnes squeezes into it not just a sense of the infinite complexity of the human heart but the damage the wrong permutations can cause when combined' - this was the praise bestowed upon him by the venerable Financial Times - to which I can only say amen.

It is a deceptively simple tale, told in an irresistibly informal style by a wistful, often ironic first-person narrator. This is the way the divorced and retired civil servant Tony Webster, calmly and quietly living out his last years, describes his relationship with his only child, Suzie:

She's thirty-three, maybe thirty-four. Yes, thirty-four. We haven't had any sort of falling-out since I sat in the front row of an oak-panelled municipal room and then did my job as a witness. I remember thinking at the time that I was signing off on her - or, more exactly, signing myself off. Duty done, one child safely seen to the temporary harbour of marriage. Now all you have to do is not get Alzheimer's and remember to leave her such money as you have. And you could try to do better than your parents by dying when the money will actually be of use to her. That'd be a start.

And further down on the same page (102) he treats us to his ironic view of his role as a grandfather:

'You can take Lucas to watch football when he's older,' she once told me. Ah, the rheumy-eyed grandpa on the terraces inducting the lad into the mysteries of soccer: how to loathe people wearing different coloured shirts, how to feign injury, how to blow your snot on to the pitch (...) How to be vain and overpaid and have your best years behind you before you've even understood what life's about. Oh yes, I look forward to taking Lucas to the football. 

But an unexpected lawyer's letter shatters his peaceable existence and forces him to recall an almost forgotten episode from his youth. As an insecure university student, he lost his clever girlfriend to one of his best friends, the brilliant philosophy student Adrian Finn - who shortly thereafter slashed his wrists in a bath,  justifying this dramatic last act in an intricate 'suicide note' (which read more like a moral treaty) 'about the superiority of the intervening act over the unworthy passivity of merely letting life happen to you'.

Tony Webster, seeing himself as a prime example of a passive person merely letting life happen to him, has always regarded Adrian Finn as some sort of philosophical hero, but the surprising letter from the lawyer of the long-lost former girlfriend's family raises many more questions than it answers. The most important questions are about memory and morality, about the fallibility and subjectivity of both, and Webster has to start investigating - or re-investigating - his own past:

How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but - mainly - to ourselves. (Page 95)

At this point the story Webster tells us - but, mainly, himself - becomes as gripping as a thriller, 'a whodunnit of memory and morality', as the Independent newspaper aptly called it. The concluding scenes deliver one shock after another, right up to the stunning last sentence: There is great unrest.

Hats off to Julian Barnes, who deservedly won the previous Man Booker Prize with this thin little book dealing with all the Big Themes of literature: love and hate, family and friendship, life and death. Truly a master's class in concise yet entertaining storytelling.

And now I'm off to read another small masterpiece perfectly suitable for summer: Antonio Tabucchi's Pereira Maintains, set in the sweltering heat of Lisbon in the summer of 1938 ...

No comments:

Post a Comment