The Sellout by Paul Beatty
A horrible cold prevented me from attending the meeting to discuss this recent Booker-winning novel. It features a narrator
who, having spent his childhood in the 'Agrarian black ghetto' of Dickens as the subject of his sociologist single father's
psychological-racial studies, decides to put Dickens back on the map by reintroducing slavery and segregation in a hugely ironic
challenge to contemporary assumptions of racial diversity. Tackling such an urgent subject, and told in a wisecracking, immensely
erudite and intelligent prose, the book fully justifies its Booker win. I didn't however find it an easy ride/read, and the following
report of the discussion written by John shows that others in our group felt the same. I am grateful to John for stepping in:
REPORT BY JOHN:
Mark chose The Sellout by Paul Beatty, and gave a brief account of his view of it. He said he thought the book was 'absolutely terrific',
particularly mentioning the author's grasp of popular culture. Mark clearly regards it as an important book and in his opinion it was on
occasion 'laugh out loud'. Trevor agreed and said the book is extremely clever. (Readers may be interested to contrast The Outsider [or The
Stranger] by Camus; a sharp contrast on the theme of racism, which now seems a far more traditional approach. See
our discussion of that
There was some disagreement about how funny this book is, though a number of people picked out one or two funny passages.
Clare said she 'didn't get it', presumably in reference to whether it was funny or not, and I agreed. I mentioned the
to Pynchon's the Crying of Lot 49; Doug had tried many times to introduce Pynchon to the group and had finally succeeded with that one.
He found The Crying hilariously funny but (most of?) the rest of us had no idea what he was talking about. I put forward the opinion that humour
is a very personal thing.
There was general agreement that this in an important book and deserving of the Booker prize. This was because it tackled head-on the
difficult topic of the idea that what is usually known as the human race (allowing reproduction between members of tht race) is in fact a
group of races: 'whites', 'Negroes'... Our discussion took place before the recent developments in America underlining the book's message,
and there was a variety of strength of feeling among us about the extent of racism in our current society, the strongest being expressed by
the member of the group who is what is sometimes referred to as 'mixed race' and the member who had made an academic study of
postcolonial literature. After some discussion, when asked directly, the mixed-race member of the group stated that he had been racially
abused as a boy, in particular on one ocasion being attacked by three youths, presumably of about the same age. It was clear that the
attack was racist due to the voculabulary the boys used. Some people expressed surprise, presumably because in their view this member
of the group is apparently fully integrated into British society, and in most circumstances (at least locally) 'passes as white'. He was in a
non-heavy sort of way, I think, raised as a Christian. I said that it was clear that the group could openly discuss the issues raised in his
presence within the security of the group, but that some groups of people would be either too embarrassed to do this, or there would
be conflict on some of the issues. I expressed the view that it is important that if society is to progress, issues such as this, relations
between the sexes, sexual abuse and paedophilia must be openly discussed. (However, I have noted in meetings with other groups
that care is needed: I have had a little contact with witchcraft scares in Nottingham, which were eventually shown not to have any
foundation in reality.)
There was fairly general agreement that the book is not an easy read. At least two of the five people present had not managed to
complete it in the allotted month, though to some extent this was because some were very committed to family over Christmas, and also
illness. There was fairly general agreement that the style of the book was dense and intense, a style perhaps more usual to short stories.
There was an agreement that Beatty is clearly a very clever guy. Jenny said that about two-thirds of the way through she began to feel that
the book was getting tiresome and she had to force herself to go on. I agreed it was hard work but went on to say that that was about the
point when the book benefited from a more traditional storyline. I also compared it to James Joyce's Ulysses, saying it was similar in the
use of digressions, and also in subject matter as the protagonist of Ulysses is a Jew in Ireland, and to some extent an outsider to the society
he lives in.*
Doug was unable to attend and briefly summarised his opinion (as he has usefully done a number of times before), stating:
'I've not quite finished the book but I haven't enjoyed it as much as I thought I was going to after the opening few pages. I've found the
heavy dialect of the main protagonist made it hard to get into the rhythm of the book, and the cultural references had me resorting to Google
on a regular basis, so I just found it quite hard going, more so than, say A Brief History of 7 Killings, which had its own challenges in the
But it was wildly funny in places and definitely worth the read.
I and at least one other member of the group expressed surprise as we had felt Doug would like the book with what (to me at least)
is a similar use of throw-away, rather jocular humour to the Pynchon. I said I felt that at times Beatty's digressions served little more purpose
than to introduce a joke that did not strike as as particularly funny.
The discussion of the book concluded, but as so often happens in the group, much discussion of the issues raised continued for a
couple of hours. Again it can be concluded that whether or not one likes the book, the issues are important. One member said
that the book contained some fabulous writing. Famously she likes food, and compared reading the book to tackling a rich box of
chocolates, with initial enjoyment leading to eventual satiation. Perhaps the lesson learned is that this book should be taken in small doses.
Certainly it is advisable to allot more time to this book than would usually be the case with a book of this length, about 250 pages.
Report written by John.
*Ed (EB): There is a reference to Joyce's Ulysses at one point in the book, which I took as a self-conscious acknowledgement and tribute.
The Midnight Bell by Patrick Hamilton
Trevor suggested this short 1929 novel, Hamilton's first, and the first in a trilogy now published in one volume, Twenty Thousand Streets
Under the Sky. It concerns the infatuation of twenty-five-year-old London pub waiter Bob for a young prostitute, Jenny, and tracks
the course of his downfall as she manipulates him and milks him of the savings he has put aside for his future, a future vaguely
conceived but in which he imagines becoming a famous writer.
Trevor said he thought the book superb. He especially thought the dialogue - of which there is a great deal - wonderful, and he was
utterly taken with the way the author leads you through Bob's mental justifications as, time and time again, Jenny gets him to give her
money (usually affecting protest) and then, after promising not to, stands him up, and Bob, disarmed by her exceptional physical beauty,
wavers between seeing through her and convincing himself of her excuses.
Group member Jenny agreed. She said she had been utterly fascinated by those mental acrobatics, and to intensely interested in
finding out how they would play out and end up. Mark and Clare, too, seemed very positive about the book.
However, Ann, John and I had reservations, and Doug was outright negative. The book begins with an evocative description
of the pub off the Euston Road in which Bob works, and its atmosphere and clientele and comings and goings, and Doug said he had
loved this - it so conjured up those London pubs - but that once it had got onto the relationship he had lost all patience with the book:
he didn't find the relationship believable at all.
There was a lot of counter justification: the point was, Bob was infatuated, and surely it's the case that under that circumstance
you can see someone double, as Bob does; you can, as Clare put it, know that someone is bad for you but still be besotted with them.
Although I agreed absolutely that this was the case (in life), I had said early on that I was afraid that I found the constant dealings
between the two antagonists repetitive, and Ann and John now strongly agreed, Ann going so far as to say she found them tedious.
People would go on to object that such situations are repetitive, but it is of course a novelist's job to write about repetition without
creating a tediously repetitive read. I completely acknowledged that for someone in Bob's situation none of it would seem tedious,
it would all be high emotional drama, but I never actually felt emotionally involved in his drama, never actually shared it and felt it
myself: never in those moments that Bob convinced himself that she wasn't cheating him and did love him did I believe so too, or at
least hope he was right. I was too easily able to judge the situation objectively and foresee how it would end, which made me impatient
with the repetitive journey towards it - all of which Ann and John and Doug very much concurred with. People said, But what about the
time Bob goes to buy a new suit (squandering his savings on it as a way of wooing Jenny)? Ann and I (and pretty much everyone)
agreed that this was indeed a masterful depiction of class diffidence, and Ann and I said that that was the point: as soon as something
different happens - different from the endless meetings between the two, always following the same pattern, and the word-for-word
identical and spurned phone calls Bob makes to Jenny's lodgings - the novel perked up for us. We felt the same about the time that
Jenny breaks her own protocol and takes Bob up to the room she moves into to share with two other prostitutes (having absconded
her lodgings without paying the rent).
I thought it was a function of the somewhat patrician, ironic, and thus ultimately distancing prose. The early description of
The Midnight Bell pub begins in this somewhat old-fashioned patrician mode:
Those entering the Saloon Bar of 'The Midnight Bell' from the street came through a large door with a fancifully frosted glass pane,
a handle like a dumb-bell, a brass inscription 'Saloon Bar and Lounge', and a brass adjuration to Push. Anyone temperamentally so wilful,
careless, or incredulous as to ignore this friendly admonition was instantly snubbed, for this door actually would only succumb to Pushing.
Nevertheless hundreds of temperamental people nightly argued with this door and got the worst of it.
Engaging as this is for its verbal wit, it ultimately wraps the clientele of the pub - and by extension the people of the novel - in an
urbanely amused narrative consciousness, ultimately belittling them. The individual pub habitues are, as people in our group (including
Doug) said, beautifully observed, but the mode employed to observe them makes them merely quaint. The early section in which we are
given a full account of Bob's character is cast very much in an ironic tone:
...[he] took to dreaming again - dreaming about a great novel that he would one day write. This would take the form mostly
employed by young novelists who have never written any novels. That is to say, it would hardly be a novel at all, but all novels in one,
life itself - its mystery, its beauty, its grotesquerie, its humour, its sadness, its terror. And it would take, possibly, years and years
to write, and it would put you in a class with Hugo, Tolstoy, and Dreiser.
Often the prose ascends to lofty near-sarcasm, employing, indeed, a patronisingly and mockingly repetitive mode, as in this scene
in the room that Jenny shares with the other two prostitutes:
'Well, said Sammy, 'I been havin' my soul saved. You know that corner where Lisle Street joins Wardour Street?'
The company [ie, Jenny and Bob] did.
'Well, there was a boy standin' there - see?'
The company did.
'He couldn't've been more than seventeen or eighteen - it's just about three o' clock, an' e' was sort of standin' about. See?'
The company did.
'Well, so I goes up to him, like, you see, an' I says, "Where do you come from," I says, "Eton or 'Arrow?" See?'
The company did, and tittered.
And so on (and it does go on...)
That depiction of 'common' speech which is shared by Jenny, (and common is a term that both the socially aspirant Bob
and the narrator would use) is of course inherently patronising. It is perhaps significant that in the second book of the trilogy, which
deals with Jenny's story and in which the author thus has to enter Jenny's consciousness, her speech is markedly less caricatured.
Similarly patronising, I found, was the constant use of what J B Priestley called Komic Capitals, a heavy way of ironising, indeed
mocking, both the speech and attitudes of the characters, as seen in Sammy's next speech in the scene above:
'So he don't say nothing. 'E just sort of Tugs at 'is collar...'
I said that I felt that the use of such a distanced prose was perhaps a function of author Hamilton's youth when he wrote the book
(he wrote it in his early twenties). It is well known that the book is closely autobiographical, and Ann added the insightful comment that
it would be a way for Hamilton to distance the experience for himself.
Jenny and Trevor had not been troubled by any of this, however, and for them the book had been an extremely satisfying read.
It was noted that this book is essentially the same story as that of Hamilton's Hangover
Square, which we discussed last March - there are even references in both to Maidenhead as a kind of Shangri-la to escape to,
and both George in Hangover Square and Bob are cheated over a trip to Brighton. Hangover Square was considered the
more mature novel by those who had doubts about this one: less facetious in tone and setting the relationship in a wider social and,
importantly, political context in the run-up to war. Mark said also that Hangover Square was the more psychological novel,
which I thought was perhaps another way of saying what I had been trying to say about The Midnight Bell.
Clare asked if anyone else had cringed as much as she had at the depiction of Jews - as dirty thieves. We all had - and I had
balked at the view of the narrator and Bob of prostitutes (clearly Bob makes an exception for Jenny): they are often objectified as 'they'
or 'them' or 'their kind'. Everyone agreed, however, that in 1925 such attitudes were part of the social fabric. Ann said that she had
really loved the vivid details of London demi-monde life in the 1920s, with which we all thoroughly agreed, and while Trevor had
been right to say that the story was still relevant and that the relationship and its trajectory could take place today, we felt that the
book was best read as a historical document.
Utz by Bruce Chatwin
Warning: some plot spoils.
Once again much time has passed between a reading group discussion and my finally getting around to writing about it
(it took place at the beginning of March, and I'm writing this in mid-April), and I'm afraid my account of our meeting may be a little sketchy.
Bruce Chatwin's final novel before his early death, this book concerns the story of Utz, a minor Saxon baron (he claims),
a half-Jew and a lifelong collector of Meissen porcelain. Beginning with Utz's funeral in 1974, the story is narrated in the 1980s
- in Chatwin's famously lapidary prose and with much erudition - by a male art specialist who as a young man encountered Utz
in Communist Prague in 1967 (the year before the Prague Spring and the consequent Soviet crackdown) - his one and only meeting
with him. Throughout the upheavals of the twentieth century, Utz had amassed and guarded his priceless collection which he now
took the narrator to view, crammed into his small flat beside the Jewish cemetery. Earlier he had hidden it from the Nazis on his
Sudetenland estate, and now, having pragmatically given up his estate to the Communists and retreated with his porcelain to Prague,
he was protecting it from appropriation for the museum through one of his many 'deals'.
Most people in the group were fascinated by the book's theme (though John was a notable exception): that of the pathology
of obsessive collecting, and the tension between an obsession with collecting material things that bind you to one place and the
need to be footloose and free of possessions - a tension known to have been that of Chatwin himself, a former Sotheby's expert
addicted to bohemian travel.
According to the story that Utz told the narrator, hassled in 1952 by the Communists over his collection, he had the urge to
'get out', away from Prague, and he 'escaped' to Vichy, tearing himself away from his collection and leaving it in the charge of his
devoted housekeeper Martha (a former servant on his Saxon estate). But after failing to enjoy anything in Vichy, from the views to
the food, and after failed attempts at sexual liaisons, he was soon drawn back. During the meeting the narrator concludes: 'The collection
held him prisoner.'
The narrator also reports that early in his life Utz had written, in an article denouncing the 'suffocation' of museum collections
in which things cannot be touched: '...the passionate [private] collector, his eye in harmony with his hand, restores to the object the
life-giving touch of its maker.' Utz explains to the narrator the source of this fetishisation, tracing the connections between the
Biblical notion of clay as the source of human life, the Jewish notion of the golem (central to the history of Prague Jewry) in which
a gifted and learned Rabbi could create a golem as God created Adam, and the medieval notion of the Holy Grail and historical events
linking it with the special clay required to make Meissen porcelain. 'Are you suggesting your porcelains are alive?' the narrator asks him,
and Utz replies, 'I am and I am not.'
This ambiguity characterises not only Utz: it characterises the whole story, and indeed the book itself. It was pointed out in the
group that on the occasion of Utz's first Vichy adventure it is not after all the porcelain, exactly, that draws him back:
He was desperately homesick, yet hadn't given a thought for the porcelains. He could only think of Martha, alone in the apartment.
The narrator, too, comes to doubt Utz's claim to have needed simply to get away - even entertaining briefly the idea that he was a spy
- since it soon becomes clear that the trip to the formerly Nazi-collaborating Vichy became a yearly occurrence, and a yearly chance
for Utz to deal in porcelain - as Utz says, when others were smuggling precious private possessions out of Prague and the hands
of the Communist authorities, he was smuggling them in.
Ten years after the death of Utz in 1974, the narrator is passing once again through Prague. He visits the museum, knowing
that part of the deal that Utz had made with the Communists was that it should go there after his death, only to find that the collection
has in fact disappeared. He meets up with the professor who first introduced him to Utz, who now reveals information that undercuts
the story we have learned so far, and the impressions the narrator has so far received. Utz, it turns out, was by no means the ineffectual
lover that he was presented as being at Vichy, and the strangely sumptuous bedroom the narrator had witnessed when visiting
his flat in 1967 had been frequented - much to Martha's heartache - by a series of 'Merry Widows' and operatic divas. And Martha,
who slept on the landing, had not been simply his servant, it turns out. In 1952 he had married her as a matter of convenience,
in order not to be evicted from his flat. Sometime in the sixties, finally rejected by a young opera singer as a ridiculous old man,
he accepted Martha fully as his wife and into his bed, marrying her again, this time in church, in 1968, the year after the narrator's
encounter with him.
The novel ends with uncertainty. What actually happened to the porcelain? (I won't give it away here.) Did it really happen this way,
and why? What were the motives? The narrator comes to his own conclusion, but it's one that he wants to believe, rather than one he can
be certain of: that in the end material objects are nothing in the face of human love. The overriding effect is an evocative sense of the
unfathomable mysteriousness of human motive and life.
Early on in the novel the author strongly signals this underpinning uncertainty by stating that Utz was of nondescript appearance,
and that he cannot even remember whether Utz had a moustache. It will turn out later that he did have one - the professor, Orlick,
will tell the narrator that tickling women's throats with it was Utz's particularly idiosyncratic seduction technique. In the early section
the narrator addresses the reader in a confidential manner: 'Supposing, then, we add a moustache? ... On reflection, I think I'd better
withdraw the moustache', thus not only leading us to read the whole story up to Orlick's revelation with a picture of Utz without a
moustache before having our preconceptions overturned, but also explicitly highlighting the authorial choices, and consequent
contingency and unreliability, of storytelling.
I have to say however that the way this is handled strikes me as not entirely successful. The book, which is very short, is related
from a single time level - one year on from Orlick's revelations - and, since all of the events of the novel are over before the story
is narrated, and the narrator clearly therefore knows the whole story before beginning, his uncertainty about Utz's moustache in the
earlier part of the narration is inconsistent with his eventually evident prior knowledge of its existence. It may be that Chatwin is thus
slyly conveying the unreliability of his narrator, and indeed of his own novel, but it seems to me, rather, a structural error in a book
that on the level of prose style is a masterpiece of polish.
The treatment of Utz's funeral compounds for me this view. In the light of the end of the book we can see that the evocative
tenor of the opening funeral scene, with 'jackdaws with twigs in their beaks ... wheeling above the lindens' - is the product of the
narrator's imagination and surmise. The narrator is quite open about this: at the end, after recounting the revelation by Orlick
of the fate of the porcelain, he states: 'I am now in a position to add to my account of Utz's funeral.' Since the narrator has in fact
known the whole truth behind the funeral scene before beginning his narration - ie, his position with regard to knowledge of events
hasn't in fact changed - this again seems a structural error.
We didn't address this in our discussion, though comment was (fairly belatedly) made on the unreliability of the narrator.
It was Ann who had suggested the book, since, working in museums herself, she had been particularly interested in the subject matter.
She had jotted down her thoughts as she reacted to the book, noting the elegance of the prose, but also wondering if the book was
somehow patronising. If I remember rightly, she had wondered at the end if it amounted to very much. We all agreed on the elegance
of the prose, but I said, in line with Ann's sense of patronisation, that I found it perhaps rather conventional and patriarchal.
In spite of the thematic obsession with uncertainty, there seemed to me a patrician air of certainty in the manipulation of language,
and I wondered too if there was a kind of cultural autocracy in the unexplained references to arcane knowledge and phenomena.
Clare said she had wondered that too.
And that, I'm afraid, apart from the inevitable and lengthy dissection of the plot and themes and characters' motives, is all that
I can remember of our actual discussion.
For Two Thousand Years by Mihail Sebastian
This book, first published in Romania in 1934, and only last year published in English for the first time, has a history
poignantly echoing its subject matter and theme.
It is the first-person story - narrated in the form of a diary and in many ways paralleling the author's own journal - of a young
man who, as a student in 1920s Romania, struggles with anti-Semitism and the sense of his own Jewishness newly thrust upon him
by the equal status recently granted to Jews in the country and the inevitable backlash. While the unnamed narrator will conclude at
the end of the book: 'I will never cease to be a Jew, of course. This is not a position I can resign from. You are or you're not. It's not
a matter of either pride or shame', he doesn't feel that Jewishness is his prime identity. Rather, he identifies as Romanian, or, as Clare,
who had suggested the book, said, he feels that his identity is primarily rooted in the Danube and the fishing village beside it from
which he comes. And he sees himself primarily as an individual, rather than a member of any grouping.
It is an identity he is denied not only by anti-Semites who see Jews as alien and the cause of the country's troubles, but by other
Jews who see him as espousing the assimilationism they deplore. The early (undated) entries consist of reports not only of the beatings
he and his fellow Jewish students suffer at the university - and the escapes and detours they have to make to avoid them -
(before they are eventually virtually barred from lectures), but also of the lengthy arguments he has with the Jewish friends who
espouse different positions from his own, and indeed from each other. Marcel Winder embraces the role of Jewish victim or martyr,
metaphorically notching up his beatings on the bedpost; S T Haim is a fervent Marxist, preparing for revolution; and Sami Winkler
is Zionist, planning to emigrate to Palestine. The narrator also meets Abraham Sulitzer, who as a travelling bookseller personifies
the archetypal Wandering Jew, an anti-Zionist anti-assimilationist who insists on the supremacy and future longevity of Yiddish
(and utterly derides the notion of the re-adoption of Hebrew, a 'dead language'), and the books he sells are, amazingly, Yiddish
translations of European classics.
While the narrator cannot agree with any of his Jewish antagonists, he remains on friendly, indeed affectionate terms with them all,
and all of their arguments, indeed their whole speeches and even their lectures, are laid out verbatim with scrupulous fairness in a book
the overall tone of which is indeed wistfully affectionate. It is not a fairness that, on publication and for many years after,
author Sebastian would experience over his book.
There are two non-Jewish characters by whom the narrator is immensely impressed: the brilliant lecturer Ghita Blidaru,
who persuades him to move from law to architecture, and the architect Mircea Vieru, to whom Blidaru introduces him, and for
whom he then works. Both impress him with their respective intellectual and creative abilities, and their liberal attitudes
- although both, as the war approaches and antiSemitic attitudes harden and 'normalise', will eventually express anti-Semitic
thoughts of their own, once again replicated by the narrator with thoughtful scrupulousness. Blidaru was based on Sebastian's
real-life lecturer and mentor Nae Ionescu, whom he asked to write a preface to the novel. Unexpectedly, Ionescu wrote a
denouncement of both the novel and the author, deriding him for believing that he could think of himself as belonging to any
nation, and anything other than a Jew. Unfortunately, Sebastian allowed publication to go ahead with Ionescu's preface.
Opprobium fell on him from all sides. The narrator hopes that Sami Winkler will 'prevail' in Palestine, but can't believe that he will.
'Two thousand years can't be overcome by leaving for somewhere,' he muses after Sami's departure, and he has wondered
about the effect of settlers on the existing population in Palestine. The book, and the author, were consequently roundly
condemned by anti-Semites and Zionists alike.
Everyone at our meeting was amazed by this book, by the way that it addresses so calmly and reasonably issues that seem again,
today, too volatile to be considered with dispassion and dealt with via the kind of calm discussion that, as Clare said, is the only way
to solve problems. We all thought it a very important book and that its publication in English in our present climate was salutary
Ann, a historian, said too that she was prompted to read up about the history of Romania which of course we don't learn about in the UK.
However, when Clare commented that she thought the book flowed beautifully, most people disagreed, finding that the long
replicated speeches and extracts from lectures given by the characters required a different kind of reading from that of the novelistic
mode of the rest, and thus made for a difficult, disjointed, overall read. Afterwards I met Trevor, who had been unable to make
the meeting, and he said that his reaction had been the same. Nevertheless, all felt it was a book that one should read, and were
grateful to have done so.
In the Cut by Susanna Moore
Warning: plot spoil.
I've been getting way behind with my reports of our reading group discussions, and it's the end of July now as I write up our May discussion
of In the Cut,
the 1995 novel by Susanna Moore, later made into a film with a very changed ending. It is the story of Frannie, a young, single female
New York teacher of English with a free-wheeling and adventurous attitude to sex and an academic interest in New York gangster slang
with its conflation of sexuality and violence. One night, looking for the toilets in the basement of a bar, she comes across a man being
pleasured by a redheaded woman, his face hidden in shadow but clearly aware that Frannie is watching. The next day the redhaired
woman is found dead in Frannie's neighbourhood and Frannie is interviewed by the detective, Malloy, investigating the case. Immediately
attracted to Malloy, she becomes sexually involved with him, while the threat of a serial killer gathers and Frannie herself seems to be
I suggested the book as, although I'm not keen on crime thrillers, I had heard that this book was very well written. What it turns out
to be is an attempt, via a first-person narration, to inject female subjectivity into a genre that has historically omitted it -
the viewpoint has traditionally been that of the detective rather than that of the victim. (In this way the book bears similarities to Jane
Smiley's Duplicate Keys which we discussed previously - and there are other similarities between the two books - but we thought this far
superior.) There was general agreement that it is indeed exceptionally well written, in stark, acute prose. Several of us were very taken
with the gangster slang theme and the interspersed glossaries that slyly promote the plot with its own conflation of sex and violence.
(Although some wondered about some of the language - did New York detectives such as Malloy really still refer to women as 'broads'
in the 1990s?)
There was deep division in the group concerning the sexual character of Frannie as evidenced by her involvement with the sexist
hardbitten Malloy - mainly between me and Jenny. Jenny strongly thought that Frannie was simply sexually curious, but I felt there was
something of masochism in her attitude and behaviour - especially as there is reference to her cold distant father and an emotionally arid colonial
childhood - and that the author may be making the point that sexual violence towards women is to some extent facilitated
by a female masochism induced by a patriarchal society. An important point, I think, is that the intelligent Frannie is quite clear-sighted
about Malloy's machismo yet almost matter-of-factly accepts it. The novel indeed begins with Frannie's criticism of her students'
disapproval of the machismo in Hemingway and Naipaul, and the fact that it blinds them to 'the intelligence of the books'.
There was also division about the character of Malloy: some, mainly the men, felt that Moore showed the vulnerability behind
his machismo but others strongly disagreed, and it turned out that Clare had failed even to go on reading the book because she had
been so put off by the character of Malloy and by Frannie's capitulation to him. Others felt that there was however authorial irony in
the treatment of this (indeed there is a self-conscious discussion of literary irony on the first page of the novel).
There were a few quibbles about structure and plot. We are teased as readers to begin to think that Malloy could be the murderer, and
Frannie starts to share the suspicion, which ratchets up the tension in her relationship with him. However, we thought that the
red-herring clues planted to cause us to make the link weren't well handled: why does she not notice that they are also associated
with the real murderer, whom she has known all along? (And isn't it a bit odd - ie overmanipulated - that such particularities are shared
by both?) Everyone
thought that a long speech by Malloy after sex, explaining himself
and his history to Frannie, was almost embarrassingly out of character - which is why, perhaps, it was felt by some that the novel failed
in portraying his buried humanity.
Although the book is billed as an 'erotic thriller' everyone agreed that that there was nothing erotic whatever about the extremely
explicit sex portrayed in the book, and that on that level it was immensely successful in its mission. The final scene, in which Frannie
is trapped by the murderer, tortured and about to die, told at it is from Frannie's viewpoint, is truly horrifying, with nothing whatever
of the danger of salaciousness in more objective narrations.
Trevor, however, couldn't accept the validity of this ending. As the novel comes to a close Frannie remembers lines from a poem
about dying she has seen on the subway. The novels ends with these lines:
I know the poem.
She knows the poem.
a sudden, final change of grammatical person. In my view this cleverly manages to present the subjectivity of the victim while deflecting
the question, But how did she live to tell the tale? as well as to create an ironic objective authorial comment on the situation and indeed
the genre. However, for Trevor this felt like a cheat, and still left him, after the subjective immersion of the final scene, with the question
Admiring as most of us were, there was nevertheless a lingering sense that in the brilliant replication of the tropes of violent crime fiction
and its language and atmosphere, there was after all something of collusion with the genre, and for this reason Ann said that, like Clare,
she hadn't liked the book at all.
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
Warning: plot spoil.
Jenny, who had suggested this Booker-winning novel, said that she had really liked it, and that it had impressed her enough to make
her think about her own life. It's a first-person recollection by Tony Webster, now in his sixties, of a life in which a long-ago friendship
with a fellow schoolboy and a long-forgotten first girlfriend turn out, in his later years, to affect him subtly but deeply.
The book is composed of two parts, and the first, shorter part encompasses the entire trajectory of Tony's early relationship with
I don't normally relate the plots of novels in great detail in these reports, but I find it necessary for this book since it is in essence
a minute examination of the narrator's memory of events and his interpretation of them at the time and years later. In addition it's
necessary in order to report our discussion, since as a group we were uncertain about the final interpretation intended.
The story told in Part 1 is this:
Arriving in the sixth form at Tony's grammar school, oddball and more seriously intelligent than Tony and his facetiously clever
and witty friends, Adrian nevertheless quickly becomes part of their clique, and indeed its centre, the one to whom the others defer.
After school, the group inevitably disperses to jobs and university, though they try for a while to keep in touch. In his first year at
university Tony meets Veronica Mary Elizabeth Ford, a somewhat cool and superior and indeed controlling girlfriend. During the
first summer vacation, she invites him to her family home. This is a strangely disturbing experience which Tony will later put down
to class differences (they are posher than his own middle-class family): Veronica's father is joshingly contemptuous towards him,
her elder brother knowingly cynical, and her mother contrastingly attentive yet strangely unmotherly. Oddly, he finds himself left
alone with her mother to have breakfast - Veronica, stating, without having ever been given any evidence, that he likes to lie in,
has gone walking with her brother and father - and her mother gives him an obscure warning about Veronica, her own daughter.
Veronica in turn comes up to London for the day and is introduced to Tony's 'gang' who are still at this point meeting up occasionally
in the holidays. For the whole of the following year Tony and Veronica go out together. Veronica has always refused to have sex
with Tony (as, narrator Tony explains, was fairly typical at the time), and continues to do so until, at the end of that second year,
they break up. It is after this that she consents on one occasion to have sex with him, and it becomes clear that she is not the
virgin he has always assumed. Not long after, Adrian, to whom Veronica paid flattering attention on her visit the previous summer,
writes to Tony informing him, with what purports to be a show of chivalrous honesty but which Tony senses is other, that he
and Veronica are now going out together. Thus, it seems, the cold Veronica has been cheating Tony in one way or another all
Tony finally sends a letter to them both telling them 'pretty much what I thought of their joint moral scruples', wishing them good
luck, warning Adrian to be prudent as he senses that Veronica has suffered some kind of damage in early life, and suggesting
(since Veronica's mother had warned him about her) that Adrian talk to her mother about her. At the time he doesn't even formulate
for himself what that 'damage' may be. Now, he muses to the reader about it - some kind of sexual abuse by her father, perhaps -
but admits that he cannot know even now. After this episode, he tells us, he put the two of them out of his mind and got on with his
own life, travelling and having a brief, friendly affair on his travels with another girl. On his return he discovers that Adrian, although
recently found by their mutual friend Alex to be happily in love with Veronica, has taken his own life. (Tony thinks at the time: 'If there
was one woman in the entire world a man could fall in love with and still think life worth refusing, it was Veronica.') Adrian has left a
letter for the coroner explaining his motives which accord with the fierce logic he applied to such issues when they were schoolboys
- 'the superiority of the intervening act over the unworthy passivity of merely letting life happen to you' - a stance which Tony
eventually comes to admire, although why Adrian should take his own life while he was apparently so happy remains a mystery.
This completes the story of Tony's youthful involvement with the two, and Part 1 concludes with a brief resume of the intervening
years up to the present - a career as an arts administrator and marriage to Margaret, a grownup daughter, a later amicable divorce,
and a quiet, orderly retirement as a single man volunteering at the local library and hospital.
However, what the reader has experienced is not just a story, but a meditation on the nature of memory and time, in particular
the memory of one's former self and motives:
Again, I must stress that this is my reading now of what happened then. Or rather, my memory now of my reading then of what
was happening at the time.
As a result the story being told often slides into uncertainty. The novel indeed begins with an exercise in subjectivity - fleeting and
evocative remembered images from moments in the story, presented out of context and resonant with mystery or ambiguity.
The conclusion the reader is being led towards is that the story we have just been told is Tony's construction - however sincere -
and not necessarily the correct one.
Part 2 begins: 'Later on in life you expect a bit of a rest, don't you?' heralding the fact that, out of the blue, the past of Part 1 will come
back to disrupt Tony's apparently settled life.
Veronica's mother, it seems, died five years ago and has puzzlingly left him £500 and 'two documents', one of which is a letter
apologising to him for the way the family treated him on his visit all those years ago, and confirming that Adrian was happy in his final
months. The other, it will turn out, is Adrian's diary, now however, the lawyer tells him, in Veronica's possession. Thus, on top of the old
mystery of Adrian's suicide, a group of new mysteries opens up: Why would Sarah Ford, Veronica's mother, leave Tony £500?
(She says in the letter that she's not even sure of her own motives in doing so.) How did she come to be in possession of the dead
Adrian's diary? And why, all these years later, has Veronica purloined it, knowing as she must that it was left by her mother to Tony?
His interest in the mystery surrounding Adrian's death reignited, Tony sets off in pursuit of the diary and tries to contact Veronica.
She proves elusive but he finally manages to contact her and engage her in an email exchange in which she is cryptic and irritable-seeming
- behaviour he doesn't find out of character in view of her former cold and manipulative self. In fact, she answers his first email with
a single short phrase which can only refer to his question about why her mother had left him the £500, and which he can make no sense
of at all: 'Blood money'. Eventually however he receives via the lawyers a single photocopied 'fragment' from the diary.
This throws up further mysteries. It's an arcane discussion of human relationships in terms of algebra, including some indecipherable
equations, and which once again impresses Tony with Adrian's intelligence and rationality. It ends tantalisingly on an incomplete sentence:
'So, for instance, if Tony -'
Tony, unseated by this rupturing of the past into his peaceful life, muses on a possible and likely ending for the sentence:
'If Tony had settled less easily for a passive peacefulness...'
He continues to hassle Veronica and eventually she agrees to meet him. He is shocked by her now worn and shabby appearance.
Once again, however, she seems obstructive and uncommunicative. She can't let him have Adrian's diary, she says, because she has burnt
it, and ducks his question about the incomplete sentence referring to himself. After only ten minutes, handing him an envelope, she gets up and
The envelope turns out to contain the letter Tony wrote after learning that Adrian and Veronica were together. It is not at all the
measured missive he remembers - although it is clearly the one he wrote - but an outpouring of nastiness and vitriol.
How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? ... My younger self had come back to
shock my older self with what that self had been, or was, or was sometimes capable of being.
The events of the past now shift for Tony into an entirely different focus: his former self is revealed to him as callous and
self-centred, and Veronica and Adrian appear in a much more sympathetic light. From a less self-centred perspective, even that
strange visit to her house seems different: perhaps her brother was not contemptuous towards him after all, but simply not interested
in him. No wonder Veronica is contemptuous of him, he thinks, and no wonder she has been reluctant to give him Adrian's diary.
His remorse spreads to encompass his whole life: unlike Adrian, he feels, he has settled for the mundanities and failed to live the
He emails Veronica, apologising for his past behaviour. Her response is again puzzling: 'You just don't get it, do you? But then you
Now different, fonder memories of their past relationship surface.
I don't know if there's a scientific explanation for this - to do with new affective states reopening blocked-off neural pathways.
All I can say is that it happened, and it astonished me.
He asks her to meet him again, more socially, and she agrees, and this time they are more amicable. Once again however she has
managed before departing to have told him nothing whatever about her own life, but by the time is he travelling back on the train,
Tony's old excitement about her has been rekindled. His hope is shattered on the next meeting, requested again by him: bafflingly,
she picks him up in her car from a Tube station in a part of London unfamiliar to him, and refuses to speak as she drives furiously and
in a way that makes him realises she is nervous. She stops the car and commands that he look at a group of people with learning
disabilities walking towards them with their care worker. She gets out and the group mob her with childlike affection, calling her Mary,
which is her second name. When Tony asks about it all, she simply repeats that he just doesn't get it, 'and you never will,' and
promptly tells him to get out of the car and drives away.
Saddened, Tony realises that this is the end, that he has been foolish to imagine any rekindling of their relationship, but he is curious
about this final incident, and begins driving back to the place and hanging out in the pub that he heard the group and their careworker talking
about visiting on Friday nights. Eventually they come in while he is there, and an odd encounter with one of them, a gangly younger
man with glasses, makes him realise who he looks like: Adrian. He is, it comes to Tony in a moment of revelation, Adrian's son.
Was this why Adrian committed suicide? Simply because, after all, like the boy at their school who had done likewise, he wasn't able
to face the consequences of getting his girlfriend pregnant? A scenario that must now 'recalibrate' Tony's sense of the honour and dignity
and philosophical logic of Adrian's death. With further remorse, Tony imagines the consequent life Veronica must have had as the single
mother of a disabled son. He writes to her, once again apologising for his past behaviour, and wishing her and her son a peaceful life.
A reply comes back: 'You just don't get it, do you? ... You never will, so stop trying.'
It is on a further visit to the pub that he learns from the care worker what it is he didn't get. That Veronica is not the mother
of Adrian's son. She is his sister. Their mother died five years ago.
Everything shifts once more, like the contents of a kaleidoscope. This presumably is behind Adrian's suicide: his impregnation
of his girlfriend's mother. Suddenly Tony, and we, can see that on Tony's visit to Veronica's house in the university holiday, her mother's
behaviour towards him was sexual, and that Adrian in his turn must have come in for the same treatment. That Veronica, in leaving
her mother alone with Tony so unaccountably, was consciously or unconsciously involved in some kind of collusion, and that it is this
that is the real damage to her that Tony sensed all those years ago. It explains the algebraic equations in the fragment from
Adrian's diary - Tony realises now that the letters are the first letters of all their names, Adrian's, Veronica's, his own, and Sarah's,
along with 'b' which stands for 'baby'. And now Tony can complete the unfinished sentence: if he hadn't suggested that Adrian speak
to Veronica's mother...
Except that there was some uncertainty in our group about whether this is in fact the intended conclusion. In spite of the explicitness
of the passages that ruminate on memory and time, this denouement occurs fairly briefly and glancingly. Doug was thinking of something
that had also occurred to others of us, although we had discounted it: the possibility that it is not Adrian but Tony who is the younger
man's father. Tony has interpreted things mistakenly on so many occasions, is it not possible that he is failing once more to grasp the
truth? Once before, concerning the letter, his memory has edited his behaviour: could it be that he has excised his own sexual behaviour
on that long ago vacation visit? If that is intended, I didn't actually find it psychologically realistic - unless, that is, Tony is consciously
and calculatedly deceiving the reader whom he addresses directly and confidentially throughout, though there seems little clear
evidence this is the case. Tony says he understands now why Sarah left him the money and the diary,
and also why Veronica referred to the £500 as 'blood money': it's presumably a reward for pushing Adrian into her arms by
suggesting he speak to her about Veronica. But this seems to me very tenuous (and unlikely) (and it has taken me until now to work
out that this is what
Tony must mean when he says he understands.) These behests would in fact
make more sense if there is a blood connection between Tony (rather than Adrian) and Sarah and her son. But then the
question arises once more:
why did Adrian commit suicide? And the disabled son's name is Adrian, after all, it turns out: presumably he has been named after
his father. Examination of the equations in the diary fragment doesn't really help. Adrian and Tony are both represented in the
equations by 'a' (Adrian often called Tony by his full name 'Anthony'), and while Tony assumes that a1 represents Adrian and a2
himself, it is after all only an assumption. Wouldn't a1 indeed more logically represent the first boy to have a relationship with
Veronica? In any case, though, no one in our group could really be bothered with the equations, which seemed a strangely
schoolboy-autistic route to interpreting a novel.
There was comment that the book overall is signally lacking in emotion. This is chiefly, I think, because everything is mediated through
Tony's reasoning retrospective speculation, but Mark and (I think) Doug expressed shock at Tony's apparent lack of emotion and flippancy
on receiving the news of Adrian's death: when Tony's mother asks him if he thinks Adrian did it because he was too clever, he has the
emotional space for the slick sarcastic reply: 'I haven't got the statistics linking intelligence to suicide.' In addition, although this is a
short book, it is extremely plot-driven and plot-intensive, which gives the whole thing the somewhat mechanical air of a crossword
puzzle - underscored, of course by the business of the equations.
As indicated above, however, it was a crossword puzzle that left us feeling unable to complete it. No one at the time of the meeting
could understand the significance of the memory of the Severn Bore which appears in the list of evocative moments at the start of the
book. It was only on my second read through that I realised it is more or less spelled out: when Tony's feelings for Veronica are reignited
he compares his emotional reversal to a river running backwards. But this is in fact only a temporary state, and the comparison is buried
again in Tony's cerebral rationalising rather than conveyed in dramatic action, and the image thus lacks the weight it seems to signal.
No one could fault the prose, which was polished and stylish, as always with Barnes, and witty: I said in the meeting that when I first
began reading the book I was very much disarmed by the wittily ironic depiction of the cocky sixth-formers. However, as I read on I
couldn't help feeling that the prose of the book shares their clever-clever air of patriarchal privilege, and others agreed. I also felt that
although Tony comes to doubt himself, there is nevertheless an overriding self-obsession - it is still, ultimately, Tony's sense of himself
and his own dignity with which the book is concerned - which we didn't feel was undercut by authorial irony - unless Doug's
interpretation of the ending was correct.
John was particularly critical of the portrayal of Veronica. Jenny accepted Veronica as a horribly cold and manipulative person,
but John said this was a male stereotype of women: he couldn't actually see that much wrong with Veronica's behaviour. As Ann and I
said, all that was wrong with her in retrospect was that she didn't want to have sex with Tony and, as John said, it is typically and
traditionally sexist to condemn a woman as cold and controlling for that. It is true that when Tony realises the truth about his own letter,
and then again at the end, Veronica comes to be viewed in a more sympathetic light, but the trouble is that this reassessment takes
place entirely on the level of (Tony's) introspective reasoning, whereas the earlier view of her is dramatised and thus made more vivid,
consequently leaving a stronger impression. What is dramatised later is her cat-and-mouse treatment of Tony during their
later meetings, which, while Tony and the reader are in ignorance about the truth behind it, reinforces a view of her as manipulative
and even nasty. In fact, it is hard to fathom the motives behind this behaviour, and I don't find it psychologically convincing: why,
having forced Tony so belligerently into an encounter with her disabled brother would she keep avoiding telling him the truth about
him - even when Tony makes the mistake of thinking he is her son? I suspect it of being a mere authorial manipulation to stretch out
the mystery. The uncovering of the mystery, when it comes, seems both perfunctory and highly artificially manipulated: the younger
Adrian has some kind of strange reaction to Tony, for which there is no evident explanation, and it seems merely a device to cause
the care worker to seek out Tony and ask him to be careful with him, which then allows for a conversation about him in which the
truth is revealed. There was a general feeling in the group that the plot as a whole was indeed over-manipulated and
John also objected to what he saw as a sexist and ageist view of older women, the disabled son described by Tony as 'born to a
mother ... at a dangerously late age. A child damaged as result,' when Sarah had been probably not much more than forty when she
conceived him. I said that on the other hand I couldn't help feeling that the whole thing was a bit of a schoolboy-type sexual fantasy
about older women, and there was general agreement. I also thought Tony's ex-wife, who obligingly and maternally talks through it all
with him, was yet
another male stereotype: that of the woman as all-accommodating mother figure. When she does finally get fed up with it - when
Tony starts wanting to discuss whether he's in love with Veronica - she tells him: 'You're on your own now, Tony', the classic
pronouncement of a mother forcing her teenage son to stand on his own two feet.
Most of us, particularly the men, found Tony's casual and carefree holiday affair unconvincing: not only did it seem unlikely because
of his prior character, we felt that it couldn't have happened without changing him, which there is no evidence it does.
All in all, no one beside Jenny was particularly impressed by the book in spite of its Booker win, though Clare, who had seen
the film, said that the book was better, as the book of course is supremely an exercise in interiority which film cannot easily convey.