May 28th, 2012


Two Short Books

I seem to have been reading several books at once for quite a time; The Town House by Norah Lofts lasted me for days. When I’d finished the lot I started on my library books and read two of them over the weekend.

Muriel Spark is a mystery to me. I can’t see how she does it. Symposium begins with a dinner party and you might expect another of those prosperous-north-Londoners’-angst books so despised by people who think novels should be gritty and ‘real’. Instead, as the narrative moves back and forth and amongst the various characters we find a surface world of normality with crime, murder and madness bubbling under. I read this in an evening and went on thinking about it for a while afterwards, still pondering on how Muriel Spark makes a starkly told story utterly brilliant. It’s all down to supreme craft, I suppose and I wish I knew the secret. One interesting point: several times while reading this I was reminded of Alexander McCall Smith, especially when people were talking. Much as I admire AMS I wouldn’t put him in the same league as a writer, but I wonder if there’s an unconscious influence?

Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending is even harder to write about. Although short, it’s very dense and also very literary; full of allusions. The narrator Tony, in his sixties, looks back on what he sees as a comfortable life which he has allowed to happen to him, rather than taking command of it. He begins with his schooldays and the description of a group of clever teenage boys is reminiscent of Barnes’ early book, Metroland. This book has a longer time scale, one which will last beyond Tony’s eventual death because history has no end, only addition. Tony is a pretty ordinary bloke: divorced but on good terms with his ex-wife, retired, a grandfather. ‘Average’, he thinks rather bitterly later in the book. There is a mystery in his past which the reader would like solved but the book is about the solving, or the possibility of ever solving a mystery, rather than about the event itself.

At school Adrian, the cleverest of the friends, tells their history master that history is ‘that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.’ Tony’s story seems to bear this out. Can we trust our own memories? What of other people’s memories of the same events? One particular document, a letter which he hasn’t seen since writing it forty years earlier, shows Tony something about himself he had forgotten. Another, which he hopes will explain certain events in the past, has disappeared, probably forever. His university girlfriend, Veronica, is always telling him, ‘you just don’t get it’, which is pretty irritating of her. Poor Tony can never get whatever it is because she always means something different. By the end of the book he thinks he has a last ‘got it’, which is a resolution of a kind but not the end. Brilliant, brilliant stuff. I really need to read it again.