My Sense of an Ending

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.



12 thoughts on “My Sense of an Ending

  1. I am sad to admit that outside of a few books I read as a juvenile, I have never fallen into the trap of expecting anything other than fiction from a novel I am reading. Perhaps this is the result of an early immersion in literature, but I am prone to view characters and events as parts of the text and if I get to the end of the book and wonder what happens next, I accept this as a fault of the author … too many loose ends in the narrative.

    But I’m an old curmudgeon and I know that many readers look to be immersed in the story. Consider all the reviewers that state they didn’t identify with any of the characters. This is considered a defect in the writing by most readers … some of us consider it to be a defect in the reader.

    This is not to say that reading for entertainment is bad, but rather that popular fiction should not be considered other than it is. I enjoy reading certain Detective or Mystery novels but I’m not going to confuse them with serious literature.

    By the way: have you read The Sense of an Ending by Frank Kermode? It was possibly the most influential book I read as an undergraduate and it is still fascinating and relevant literary theory to this day.

    1. I don’t think I have to identify with a character to want to know more about the world they inhabit. In fact, I think for me it is often wanting to know more about the consequences of the story. No event ever brings the ongoing tale to an end, unless of course you’re Cinderella and certain to live Hal
      Ily ever after.

      I don’t know the Kermode although I know a lot of his Shakespeare work. I’ll certainly look out for it.

  2. I was once advised, when writing short stories, to give the reader a sense that the characters had a life before and after the duration of the story itself. I wonder if the same is true in novels? If the reader has bought into the characters’ world, is it unreasonable to want to imagine their lives beyond the end of the book?

    I’m happy to be left wanting to know what happened next. But then, there is the sadness of coming to the end of a pleasurable experience, rather like drinking the last drops of a fine wine and wishing for a little more.

    1. Karen, that final analogy is interesting because you know what happens if you have that extra glass of fine wine? You get drunk and the hangover is just terrible. This is like that reviewer commenting that by the time the series had reached number 13 it had gone stale. Or, coming closer to home, me wanting that second dish of ice cream, even though I know it will make me sick. I need to learn to live with the momentary sadness.

    1. I think that’s very true, Karen, and not only in terms of characters and setting. It can also happen with plot and structure too, meaning that each successive book can come to seem like a repeating record. Where readers are concerned, much as I think Enid Blyton has to offer children when they are learning to read, I always knew that part of my job as a primary teacher was to help them to find other authors and move on. There are times when I think adult readers need to do the same thing.

  3. I have this book and I’ve been delaying reading it, mainly because I want to hold on to that experience of first reading – is that silly? I don’t like coming to the end of a book I’ve really enjoyed. You’re quite right that re-reading is never quite the same. I really dislike sequels and prequels – they are so disappointing.

    1. Two days later I still have the last twenty pages to read, Margaret. I’m telling myself that this is because I want to finish it as close as possible to Monday’s meeting, but we both know that isn’t the real reason!

  4. I like the feeling of having inhabited a world fully and being left wanting to know more. It’s unsatisfying to a certain extent because I feel a lack, but that lack and the way it gets you using your imagination brings a certain kind of pleasure at the same time. It’s fun to think about the future life of Elizabeth Bennett and to be able to make it up for yourself.

    1. Yes, I can see that, Rebecca. And, it is definitely better than finding that someone else has come in and continued the story in a way that simply horrifies you. I don’t read sequels by other people.

  5. I’m with you in mistrusting sequels and tend to think they are the province of accountants who exploit precisely that desire to remain longer with the characters, regardless of the quality of the subsequent encounter. But as to whether books should leave you wanting to know more, I can only offer that fudge of an answer: it depends. Sometimes the skill is in leaving things open, sometimes in perfect closure. Probably the most accomplished writers are those who understand which kind of story they are dealing with.

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