Hazel McHaffie

Julian Barnes

A readable Booker? Whatever next!

I’m knee-deep in books about organ donation at the moment (including some of questionable literary merit), so a masterclass in good writing seemed an attractive diversion.

How’s this for an opening paragraph?

‘I remember in no particular order:

– a shiny inner wrist;

– steam rising from a wet sink as a hot frying pan is laughingly tossed into it;

– gouts of sperm circling a plughole, before being sluiced down the length of a tall house;

– a river rushing nonsensically upstream, its wave and wash lit by half a dozen chasing torchbeams;

– another river, broad and grey, the direction of its flow disguised by a stiff wind exciting the surface;

– bathwater long gone cold behind a locked door.

This last isn’t something I actually saw, but what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.’

Intrigued? Yes, indeedy, so was I. Each of these memories gives a glimpse of an event we want to know about.

The Sense of an Ending is the story of Anthony Webster, a rather nondescript and timid divorced man in his 60s reflecting back on his life leading up to a shocking revelation. This is triggered by a bequest from the mother of an old college friend whom he met only once 40 years before. So why would she be leaving him money? His memory tracks back over schooldays, student days, affairs, marriage and divorce, retirement. Mistakes. Realisation gradually dawns.

But the book is also about memory – its subjectivity, its selectivity, its malleability. And the ending stops you in your tracks, making you want to go back and read it all again for the cues you missed first time around.

It’s a compact little book – a novella it’s been called – a mere 150 pages with wide spacing. Easily read in one sitting. And that’s been one of the ongoing criticisms of those who object to its selection as the Man Booker winner for 2011.

The judges, led by Dame Stella Rimmington, have also been castigated for putting ‘readibility’ onto their list of criteria. Hello? I’m one of those who are very glad they did. So many Booker winners are impenetrable to us ordinary mortals. Besides, as the judges themselves were at pains to emphasise, it wasn’t readability at the expense of quality writing, but in addition to.

And the quality is certainly there. In spades. Julian Barnes is a formidable writer in such command of language that he manages to convey profound truths through deceptively simple lives and actions. I won’t spoil the experience for those of you who’ve yet to read this book, but here are a couple of examples of Barnes’ mastery of his art.

Old Joe Hunt, the wryly affable history teacher, is challenging a class of pretentious boys as to the origins of the First World War. A new lad gives him a lengthy philosophical exposition ranging over culpability, anarchy, subjectivity and truth. A silence follows this, the other boys wondering if this is an attempt at ridiculing Old Joe; realising it isn’t. Then …

‘Old Joe Hunt looked at his watch and smiled. ‘Finn, I retire in five years. And I shall be happy to give you a reference if you care to take over.’

And he isn’t ridiculing anyone either.

Then there’s a wonderful sentence describing the narrator’s feelings when he hears about a lad who ‘auditions‘ girls by sleeping with them in order to decide which one ‘to go out‘ with. He himself has not slept with any girl to date (I should perhaps explain, the context was the prevailing morality of the 60s).

‘This made me feel like a survivor from some antique bypassed culture whose members were still using carved turnips as a form of monetary exchange.’

Well worth reading as an example of concise and powerful writing. The unravelling of a mystery is secondary. All grist to my mill.

But in the midst of this reading orgy, I’m trying to make time to enjoy the glories of spring and this unseasonable heatwave.

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What makes a book good?

I’ve been chortling quietly to myself this week as the Man Booker process has reached its grand finale with the announcement of the winner. First there was the criticism levelled at the panel of judges. How dare they dumb down the competition by choosing readable books? How dare they?  I mean!

Then, the winner, Julian Barnes, is famous for having scorned the whole MB enterprise as ‘posh bingo‘. Bet he’s not repeating that this week!

And now one of the judges, Gaby Wood, has gone to print saying that ‘Almost nothing happens in the book.‘ That’s the winning  The Sense of an Ending she’s talking about. OK, she does go on to qualify her remark: ‘yet it becomes a psychological thriller of extraordinary technical virtuosity.‘ But even so, I think I’d be miffed if someone said nothing happened in my books.

Which brings me nicely to a post written by Simon on Stuck-in-a-book on 7 October. Yes, I know, two weeks ago. But I needed time to mull this one over. And I’ve been much exercised by this matter during those two weeks.

Simon asked the question: How would you rank the three main components of a ‘good’ novel: plot, character and writing style? Of course, the evaluation of ‘good’ is a very subjective business, as he acknowledges. But that makes your own answer to the question the more intriguing.

OK, have you thought how you’d answer? Before contaminating your opinion with his answer. Or mine, come to that.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading of late – not least because it’s that time of year to think about filling the Christmas shoe boxes for Operation Christmas child/Samaritans’ Purse, so I’ve been rattling off woolly hats like a veritable conveyor belt. I concentrate for much, much longer if my hands are busy too. But the more books and bonnets I finished, the more difficult I found it to separate out those jolly old component parts. The best books are a clever amalgam of all three. Can they be assessed as ‘good’ without that balance?

What’s more, the boundaries can be less than distinct. A character can’t be well drawn without skilled writing … can it? And a storyline can reel you in subtly if it’s well written – it doesn’t have to be an overt edge-of-the-seat-whodunnit kind of plot if the writing is seductive.  But if either characters or plot are badly written they aren’t going to appeal.

Simon chooses writing style as definitely most important, and from what I’ve just said, I guess I’m initially concluding much the same. He puts character second, but relegates plot to way less important. In his words he ‘can happily, contentedly adore a novel where nothing happens – so long as the writing is good and the characters well-drawn.

And that’s were we part company. I would say at the end of such a volume: ‘So what?‘ There needs to be some tension, some kind of change or resolution, to leave a satisfied taste for me. Something more memorable and  substantial to hang onto other than beautiful phrases and clever metaphors. I like the characters and what happens to them to linger after I’ve returned the book to my shelves.

I also think the balance can change according to the genre. A mystery or thriller can’t work without plot. A romance doesn’t gel without character. And if the storyline is really gripping in any genre, the writing doesn’t have to be spectacularly good to keep those pages turning. Sheer story-telling ability has a power that transcends minor anomalies – though they might irritate at some lower level.

Still with the genre issue: I know that in my own books, the balance of the three components was different in the reflective diary of Adam as he contemplated his own death in Right to Die, compared with the search for Viv’s rapist in Vacant Possession. Writing in Doris’ voice as she sank into dementia in Remember Remember, required a different approach from that of Dr Justin Blaydon-Green when things started going pear-shaped in his infertility clinic in Saving Sebastian. But characters have been important in all of the books, whatever the genre. If you don’t care what happens (which is not the same thing as liking them) why should you bother to read on?

So, at the risk of sounding totally feeble, I personally can’t rank the three components. They all matter to me. It depends. What about you? You can reply to Simon instead if you’d rather. The idea came from him. But if you’re angling to judge the MB books next year … think … very … carefully … before you commit your thoughts to the ether. Simon’s still in the running I should think.

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