Wednesday, 28 December 2011

The Sense of an Ending: Re-reading the first page of Barnes, after Kermode:

It turns out to be enormous fun!

By the time I finished Kermode's The Sense of an Ending, I was despondent, because it had been such hard work, and I thought that I'd probably missed or misunderstood some of the concepts altogether. Kermode wrote for the initiate, and I am not among them. He assumes a literary literacy I do not have. So I have to work hard at it, thankful that the Net and Wikipedia are at my fingertips. I was straining, though it was a pleasurable effort.

As I started to read Barnes' The Sense of an Ending again, the despondency said that in all probability I would miss what he was on about because I'd had so much trouble with Kermode. Barnes' book is divided into one short chapter and one long (twice as long) chapter. The first is about the past - youth - and the second takes place in the present, with flashbacks based on documentation and reminiscences.

The very first paragraph is indeed about looking back, about memory, which is what the women in my friend's book-group had said.The last sentence qualifies the list of events which are remembered: what one remembers is not necessarily what was witnessed.

The list provides an example of the way the human mind works, described by Kermode as follows: "When we survive, we make little images of moments which have seemed like ends; we strive on epochs." (p. 7)

Looking at it again, I realise that despite the character - called Tony Webster - prefacing the list with the statement that the items are 'in no particular order', the events are listed in exactly the order in which they occurred. This contradiction is typical of Tony, of his unawareness of himself and the way in which he says things without thinking about them.

All the images have to do with fluidity - a metaphor for time - and motion and with sex. The shiny inner wrist is linked (we later find out) to wetness and to an up and down motion. The steam rises from the wet sink as the hot frying pan lands (downward) in it. The sperm is sluiced down the full length of a tall house, the river rushing upstream, the other river flowing one way while the wind blows in the other, 'exciting the surface'. There is more - to do with sex and circularity  - heat, wetness, watch, fryingpan, plughole, torches - but this is getting into minutiae.

Still on the first page of Barnes' book, the second paragraph starts with what I by now think of as a Kermodian sentence: "...time holds and moulds us but we do not understand it very well". Barnes refers to the tick tock of time passing.  This is an expression of Kermode's: between the tick and the tock is a discrete interval to which we can give meaning, which enables us to create a pattern, reducing the anxiety we may experience when faced with infinity.

Kermode writes about the tick and tock of the Bible - of course it is the Christian Bible he means - which starts In the beginning... and finishes with a vision of the end - Apocalypse. With the development of scientific knowledge, our model of the beginning and ending of our world is drastically changed - both recede into infinity. How to represent this accurately in a novel?

Kermode refers to Gwen Harwood's poem The Barn Owl, which is also in Barnes' book - a way for Barnes to refer both to death and to himself. (The owl dies a fearsome painful death.) He slips in a mention of  himself elsewhere as well, as the (invented) 'French philosopher Patrick Lagrange' - grange being barn in French. This is mentioned in a wonderful interview with Eleanor Wachtel of CBC.

Having finished Barnes' The Sense of an Ending - this time with a feeling of completeness, though much remains obscure - am slowly re-reading Kermode again. My copy of Barnes has been lent to a friend in need and so I now can't compare the texts as I go. I feel less driven to do so than  I was.

I've had the time to research the terminology and it is easier to understand, though the reading remains a slow business. Also rediscovered the wonderful Henry James quote about comical fatuous endings of the kind common in Hollywood movies:
"...a distribution at the last of prizes, pensions, husbands, wives, babies , millions, appended paragraphs, and cheerful remarks".
In the process of reading Kermode, it occurred to me that I should change what I write, in a particular way. The thought was there, and then it left. I have an obscure sense of what it was but am not sure. This could be the most rewarding aspect of the whole effort. I have learnt that though I sometimes don't know why certain things seem important - such as the analysis these two books in relation to each other - the inclination is to be trusted and followed.

This being the seasons for gifts, books have accumulated, waiting to be read.

Update: read a review of this book which said that connections to Philip Larkin were everywhere.
 You can read my first post about the Sense of an Ending here.

Friday, 23 December 2011

The Sense of an Ending, by F. Kermode

Having read Julian Barnes, I turned to this other book which must be relevant to understanding his work, since he gave it the identical title - bowing to the master?

Kermode's  Sense of an Ending has the subtitle: Studies in the theory of fiction. An eminent Brit, knight of the realm, professor of English, he taught at Harvard and Rutgers as well as Cambridge. He died in 2010. (Is it significant that Barnes' book was published around that time?) Kermode's book was originally published in 1967 in the US. Wellington's Central Library stock it, bless them, though it was out when I first looked for it. Someone else triggered into reading it ...

Now it's my turn, and I have to get on with it, not waste any time. The first chapter is entitled The End.

It's hard work. The most important word in that chapter is apocalypse:  How we imagine an ending to whatever time-bound process we are thinking about, so that it has a beginning, a middle and an end, a pattern we seem to require, whereas life flows on and on strands interwoven, and there is no beginning and end. The apocalyptic view belongs to a rectilinear world view, rather than a cyclical one. Am learning heaps: The Odyssey is written in 'episodes related by their correspondence with cyclical ritual.' The Western model is apocalyptic.

I have to read with the dictionary at hand - several unknown words  - surd, for instance, and clerisy - and some I wanted to be sure about, such as eschatological.

I am now in the middle of chapter 2, unable to progress for a while. Being a mother got in the way. There are some days ahead where I shall - hopefully - be able to work on what interests me.

In the mean time, I think over the Julian Barnes book in the light of apocalypse...As I have said in a previous post, I finished that book feeling I had missed the point, that there was something which I had not noticed. A bit like that psychological experiment on selective attention where someone is told to watch a team of people playing ball and keep their eye on the ball at all times, and then does not notice when a large gorilla (a person in a gorilla suit) walks across the space...(More info about this here). This happened to a friend of mine who has excellent concentration and she was mortified. Some people did notice the gorilla, but quite a large percentage didn't.

We believe instinctively that we see everything that is there to be seen...

A friend told me that she had read Julian Barnes's The Sense of an Ending with her book group - middle-class educated women - and that by and large people had not liked it. No one had looked up the Kermade connection or knew about apocalypse.

I do think it changes everything.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Reading 'a certain way'

William Empson, author of Seven Types of Ambiguity, the 'great British critic' recommended that one read 'a certain way', to be a reader on which 'nothing is lost'.

Per Petterson's writing lends itself to this: I curse the River of Time was the most mysterious of his books to start with, and the most rewarding to work on.

Also the way to read Proust - in spite of feeling I don't know enough . Sometimes only a page a day is manageable.. Sometimes a page needs re-reading several times before it becomes clear. The problem with taking so long is that one may lose the sense of the shape of the work as a whole. A landscape began to emerge at the end of the first volume, like hills glimpsed through a mist;  but then they disappear again.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Falling for Wilfrid Owen

I arrived very late at a lecture about the Bloomsbury group, just in time to field three photographs that the lecturer had sent through the rows of elderly ladies. Because everyone else had seen them by then, I was able to hang on to them for a while.  One of them was a sepia print of Wilfred Owen the poet, taken by his uncle John Gunston, a butcher whose hobby was photography. Would John Gunston have been amazed that one of his photos - the only one -  is now at the National Gallery?

The photo was taken  two years before Wilfred's death in 1918. He is in his officer's uniform and is about 25 years old.  His gaze is clear, his nose straight, his mouth beautiful under the moustache. He has a slight dimple in the middle of his chin. The face is very precise. The photographer knew his trade, or maybe his sympathy for his subject comes across.Wilfred sits straight but not stiff, neat and tidy, as if ready for parade. The eye of the camera is lower than he is, so that he looks down a little. This look seems to say, This is what I am not - he seems somehow disassociated from the uniform. The brow is not stern, there is no affectation of courage. It is almost as if he is sharing a joke at the paradoxical situation he finds himself in. He is very handsome.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

The real thing

Finished reading Patricia Grace's Potiki last week. I've read several of her books, but this is the first time that her writing touched me: even though there were things I didn't understand, magical events, people with special powers, it showed me a Maori point of view, and some of it at least I understood.

I met Patricia Grace a few years ago, not that she would remember me. I was a member of a group of manuhiri arriving at her marae, and she was in the line of those who welcomed us in the traditional way, nose to nose, breath mingling with breath. We were students and the teacher who brought us to meet Patricia was - is - a respected Maori writer, whose mana opened the doors to this other world. (Maybe I'm wrong and they would have opened anyway - I am remembering how worn-out the whanau were by all the visitors they received. But that's a different story.)

When I met Patricia Grace, I didn't know it was her, but I became aware of her because her blue eyes are so penetrating, like suddenly being drenched in water, or in the sudden beam of a powerful searchlight - shocking, all the more so for being unexpected. She doesn't  peer or scrutinise in a searching way; on the contrary, she is reserved, quiet, modest. But her gaze seemed all-seeing.

I felt wanting. That is what I remember: she was unimpressed and I would have liked to say something, do something to impress her. That did not happen, quite the contrary, I remember I was unhappy about something on the marae, and it seemed to me she disapproved.

I have read some of her previous books and they left no trace in me, until this one, this Potiki.

So this is the book that made her famous: now I understand why people respect her. Here is wonderful writing - a personal truth, in the framework of historical events and characters which one grows to understand and feel with deeply.