I am within twenty pages of completing Julian Barnes novel The Sense of an Ending ready for discussion at the Monday Book Group next week. I have been reading it extremely slowly. In part this is because the ideas that he is discussing are so dense that I need to give myself time to sit back and think about the truth of what the writer has to say about memory and time in relation to the real world and to my place in it. Also, I am having to tussle with the extent to which I trust the narrator, or rather because I don’t think I’ve trusted him from page one, calculating the extent of my distrust. However, the main reason I am eking this novel out is because the writing is so good, the world so precisely drawn, the characters so engrossing that I just don’t want to come to the end.
I think I mentioned that I had been reading Robert Scholes introduction to his book Protocols of Reading and one of his ideas that I made a note of, because it chimed with how I so often feel when drawing to the end of a book, was this:
[w]e read knowing that our lives as readers of this particular text are limited and that each word moves us closer to the end.
There are times, and reading the Barnes is one of them, when I feel that I am caught in a paradox. I want to know how the book is going to end but I do not want to leave the world and the characters that inhabit it behind. The sequence of events around which the novel is built may have been brought to a satisfactory conclusion but as Gustad, the main character in Rohinton Mistry’s book, Such a Long Journey, says of his bookseller father
[s]ometimes, when he was reading [he had] a kind of sadness [in his eyes], that the book was finishing too soon, without telling him everything he wanted to know.
So often I want to stay with a group of characters after the book is finished and find out more about them. I suppose there are occasions when I really do want to know the equivalent of how many children Lady Macbeth had.
Is this the mark of a truly good writer, of someone who has practised their craft so exceptionally that the world and its people have become real to me and for a space I walk the same paths, breathe the same air as the main characters do? Or is the outstanding writer the one who rounds the narrative off so completely that while I close the book with a sigh of satisfaction I have no pressing need to find ways of continuing my relationship with the dramatis personae? I don’t know.
One thing I do know is that this is why sequences of books are so popular. You can come back and enter that same world again and again, either as a continuation of your previous experience or through an entirely new set of events. Sometimes, where a set of characters remain constant while the story in which they are immediately involved is different, you can do both. A lot of detective fiction works in this way. But when the sequence ends, what then? Presumably this is one of the reasons why J K Rowling attached that final chapter, Nineteen Years Later to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Thematically it tells us a lot about Harry’s understanding of Snape, practically it stops people trying to write about what happens next, but it does also provide some further information about the way the wizarding world develops after Voldemort has gone to satisfy those who want to stay in Harry’s world that bit longer.
It is also why there is such a lucrative market in writing sequels to the works of authors like Dickens, Austen and the Brontes. With all those readers desperate to know what happened next to Elizabeth and Darcy, Jane and Rochester, the writer has a ready made audience the moment the novel is announced. But for me that is never the same. The world is always a little bit different. I am never convinced that what I am being presented with is the ‘truth’ of those characters’ future. I inevitably feel cheated.
Perhaps re-reading is the answer, but I don’t think so. Oh, you might notice extra facts that you missed in your first reading but for the most part this is information that you already have. Your longing for more of the same can’t be fulfilled by a second time around experience. You have moved on and you want the world of the novel to move on as well. What you really want is another book.
But, would you necessarily enjoy it? I came a cross a review this morning of a book by a writer of whom I had not previously heard. The nationality of the author and the genre in which she was working appealed to me so I nipped over to Amazon to see if I could get the first in the series on Kindle. The only one available was the latest, the thirteenth, I think, and the first review was telling. ‘All right’, it said, ‘but beginning to get stale.’ There comes a point where both reader and writer have had enough information, or perhaps a point is reached where the only plausible new information is ‘and after that they all lived a very ordinary life that wasn’t much to make a story out of.’
Maybe that greatest of story-tellers, Bilbo Baggins, got it right after all when he decided that the perfect ending to his story was ‘and he lived happily ever afterwards to the end of his days.’ But then even Frodo left the last pages blank so that Sam could finish the tale off.