The Man Booker at Birkbeck: author Julian Barnes on The Sense of an Ending

Dr Ben Winyard, Senior Content Editor, discusses the recent Man Booker event at Birkbeck, which saw author Julian Barnes in conversation with Russell Celyn Jones, Professor of Creative Writing.

On 27 November 2017, prize-winning novelist, essayist, journalist, memoirist and art critic Julian Barnes came to Birkbeck for the annual Man Booker at Birkbeck event. Hundreds of Birkbeck students, alumni and staff – including many from Birkbeck’s popular and successful creative writing programmes – attended the event, while 2000 free copies of Barnes’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel, The Sense of an Ending (2011), were distributed in the weeks beforehand. This is the seventh year of this ongoing, hugely successful initiative between Birkbeck and the Man Booker Foundation and, as Hilary Fraser, Executive Dean of the School of Arts, observed in her introduction, both institutions are committed to ‘the public good’ of bringing the highest cultural and intellectual achievements, including the very best of contemporary literature, to the widest possible audience.

In a genial, urbane and erudite exchange, Russell Celyn Jones, Professor of Creative Writing at Birkbeck, discussed The Sense of an Ending with Barnes, interrogating him about the novel’s genesis, central concerns and themes, and readers’ responses. The Sense of an Ending is a meditation on the pleasures and perils of ageing, the slipperiness of memory, the contingency of identity, and the sting of remorse. It is narrated in the first-person by Tony Webster, an affable, very British everyman, who has happily – perhaps even smugly – sailed through life with as little friction and emotional upset as possible. In the first part of the novel, we are treated to Tony’s blandly straightforward memories of his sixth-form and university days, as the repressed 1960s begin to sputter into life with the falling away of old prohibitions. In a bravura middle section, Barnes glosses over four decades of Tony’s very ordinary life in just five paragraphs, emphasising the swift passage of time and the terse eulogy of a man who has lived entirely according to his own fixed self-image as a ‘regular, reliable, honest chap’, in Barnes’s words. In the second half of the novel, Tony’s life is upended by revelations about the death by suicide, forty years previously, of his precociously brilliant school friend, Adrian, and the return to his life of his acerbic first girlfriend, Veronica.

In a tussle over ownership of Adrian’s lost diary, Tony endures a series of baffling, bruising encounters with an indignant Veronica, whose constant refrain is, ‘You don’t get it, but then you never did’. The recovery of a half-remembered letter he sent Adrian in a fit of pique overturns his quietism, revealing a moment of youthful callousness that belies his lifelong self-image as an amiable, decent and morally equitable person. Tony is also confronted with uncomfortable truths about a child secretly fathered by Adrian, forcing him to reassess his memories and unleashing an irremediable, guilty sense of responsibility for contributing to Adrian’s suicidal despair. We might regard Tony as ‘cowardly’, Barnes observed, or as ‘emotionally practical’, but he is less an unreliable narrator than a narrator who simply gets things wrong.

Barnes located the origins of the novel in his 2008 memoir, Nothing to be Frightened of, which explored his own intense fear of dying and death. While writing this piece, he shared with his philosopher brother a memory of their grandfather slaughtering chickens, which his brother remembered so differently as to present Barnes with two alternative, ‘incompatible’ memories. This powered his interest in the precariousness of memory, which has profound implications for our sense of self, but also for the writing of history more generally. In the novel’s early scenes, the young Adrian quotes a historian invented by Barnes – whom some readers have fruitlessly Googled and even quoted as if he were real – who argues, ‘History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.’ The Sense of an Ending is thus shot through with concerns about causation, memory and the writing of personal and national histories. This ‘comic beginning’ to the novel was accompanied by the personal discovery of the death by suicide of a brilliant school friend many years before, which encouraged Barnes to explore in fiction how we can think of the dead as alive and fantasise about their unlived lives.

Barnes admitted that he liked wielding the authorial tool of a hidden secret, enlisting the reader as a detective or a historian, who must piece together events from Tony’s unreliable memories. Barnes also confessed to enjoying inflicting a correctional revelation on his complacent narrator, unearthing his buried, youthful capacity for ‘great emotional violence’, as well as delivering a shock to the reader, who has taken Tony at his word and understood him as essentially mild. Through Tony, Barnes explores how our memories, which can feel utterly truthful and foundational to our sense of self, can be sanitised, redacted and preserved in mental aspic. Barnes confessed that he shares Veronica’s punitiveness, as we come to understand the profoundly damaging effect Tony’s blithe letter had on her.  ‘Remorse’, Barnes expounded, has its etymology in Latin and originally meant ‘to bite again’, and it is through the sharpness of his regret that Tony comes to a deeper understanding of himself, his history and his actions.

Barnes discussed his own belief that our character is largely fixed in childhood and the illusoriness of our adolescent sense that our life ‘as free philosophical individuals’ will fully begin when we become adults. In distinction to existential philosophy, which emphasises individual freedom and action and which Barnes’s young characters affectedly adopt, Barnes argues that ‘your room for manoeuvre in your life is smaller than you think’ – as Tony painfully learns. An audience member remarked on Tony’s retreat into the mundane when confronted with uncomfortable truths – he instigates a hilariously petty discussion about thick-cut chips in a pub when he realises that he has met Adrian’s now-grown son – and Barnes revealed his own preoccupation, at a dear friend’s funeral, with the architectural history of the church in which the service was taking place. Grief, he argued, ‘is not as it is written down’ because ‘we oscillate between different levels’ and our grief is rarely unmixed with other emotions, responses and thoughts.

In reply to questions from creative writing students, Barnes confirmed his abiding interest in form and discussed the ‘technical challenge’ of a novel in which the bulk of a person’s life is hastily summarised and the emphasis is rather on the bookends to Tony’s existence – his youthful education, followed by his retirement. The authorial ability to move a narrative through time is something Barnes feels becomes stronger with age. For Barnes, form encompasses style, design and viewpoint and he quoted Flaubert’s observation that form needs an idea – and vice versa. For Barnes, when these two elements – form and idea – cross, there is a ‘fizz’, like electricity passing along a wire. Barnes insisted on the centrality of truth-telling to the art of fiction, arguing that it encompasses and expresses complex ‘truths [that] can’t be reduced to bullet-points or Christmas cracker mottos.’ Although he is an accomplished critic of art, Barnes argued that the novel, with its unique depth and intimacy, cannot be supplanted by other art forms.

The audience was interested in the film adaptation of the novel – ‘Take the money and run!’ was Barnes’s droll advice – Barnes’s influences, readerly responses to Tony, what Barnes is currently reading and his interest in translated literature. This successful, enjoyable evening confirmed yet again that Birkbeck and the Man Booker Foundation are a natural fit, with both offering multiple opportunities for cultural exchange, intellectual advancement and literary enjoyment.

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Understanding data analytics at BICOD

Lucy Tallentire from the School of Business, Economics and Informatics reports on the biennial British International Conference on Databases (BICOD).

Award of Best Research Student paper prize to Alexandru Bogatu, by Alastair Green of Neo Technology

From 10-12 July, Birkbeck’s Department of Computer Science and Information Systems played host to a wealth of insightful research discussion at the biennial British International Conference on Databases (BICOD). Birkbeck has a long-standing association with BICOD since its inception in the 1980s, with three generations of Computer Science researchers at Birkbeck having contributed to its legacy.

In her opening address, Professor Alex Poulovassilis, Deputy Dean of Birkbeck’s School of Business, Economics & Informatics, and General Chair of this year’s BICOD, highlighted Birkbeck’s long-standing contributions to the conference. She gave special thanks to this year’s Keynote speakers and those delegates who had travelled from abroad for the occasion. The last time Birkbeck hosted the conference in 1997 it was still known as the British National Conference on Databases (BNCOD) but this name was changed in 2015 to reflect the aim of the conference to be a platform for research discussion both nationally and internationally: “The geographical and thematic scope of this year’s papers and the interest from all over the world serves to demonstrate the conference’s continuing success.”

The theme of this year’s BICOD was Data Analytics, and the programme kicked off with a Keynote talk from Dr Tim Furche, Lecturer in Computer Science at the University of Oxford and Co-Founder of Wrapidity Ltd. Tim stressed the importance of translating research in AI and Machine Learning into practically applicable technology – in the case of his company, in the large-scale extraction of useful data from websites.

Short presentations by the four students vying for the best PhD paper prize followed. The judges commended the quality of the competition and praised the investigation and presentation of all the students. The winner, Alex Bogatu, collected his prize from the sponsor Neo Technology.

Further conference sessions over the course of the event comprised of two more Keynotes, from Professor Elena Baralis and Dr Sihem Amer-Yahia; two Tutorials, from Professor Leopoldo Bertossi and Dr Vasiliki Kalavri; and further research paper presentations, with subjects ranging from Data Exploration, Multidimensional Data and Graph Data Querying.

Keynote Speaker Professor Elena Baralis

On the final morning of the conference, there was also a unique chance to enjoy a joint session between BICOD and the International Joint Conference on Rules and Reasoning (RuleML + RR), which followed the BICOD conference at Birkbeck. The leading international joint conference in the field of rule-based reasoning, RuleML + RR brought a number of new delegate perspectives to the audience, as well as a focus on theoretical advances, novel technologies and innovative applications for rules and reasoning.

The BiCOD team would like to thank the conference sponsors for their generous support: Neo Technology, ONS, Palgrave Macmillan and The Information Lab.

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How the generosity of donors transforms the lives of students

On 13 July 2017 Birkbeck welcomed donors, volunteers, students and staff for an ‘An Evening of Thanks’ for all they give to the College. Aziza Sentissi, a PhD candidate in Mathematics and Statistics, spoke at the event, and reflects on what the generosity of donors means for students like her, who may otherwise be unable to undertake their studies. aziza850x450My interest in Mathematics dates back to an early age at primary school. I achieved good academic results in Mathematics and I never felt that it was an effort to tackle my math homework or any math puzzle. I have always enjoyed the thrill of the mathematical challenge. It was (and it is still) like going on an adventure where your only tools are your logic and your instinct. I believe that we all have naturally a set of skills in which we reach our optimal potential. It is just matter of finding, nurturing and using them. In my case, it is definitely Mathematics.

Most of my academic and professional decisions were motivated by the need to use Mathematics on a daily basis. I studied industrial engineering for my undergraduate degree, focused on financial engineering when I studied for my MBA and spent more than a decade working in market risk management in both Toronto and London. My career allowed me to gain an expert-level experience in the field while using the mathematical finance skills I acquired through education and experience.

I know that I should have felt a certain degree of contentment with my academic and professional progression, but in reality, I felt frustration that I was still far from my intellectual potential. I felt that I needed to get back to ‘core Mathematics’. It was just about finding the right programme so that I could reconcile studies and work. Finding out about Birkbeck’s MSc programmes was already a big step toward my goals. Indeed, Birkbeck offered the best opportunity to join a recognized programme taught by an outstanding faculty while working in London.  A few years later, I graduated with distinction from the MSc Applied Statistics (2013) course, and with merit from MSc Mathematics (2015).

Studying at Birkbeck by far exceeded all my expectations. It has competitive programmes with strong curriculums, an outstanding faculty, and dedicated staff. Some companies I’ve worked at have spent a lot of money persuading employees to buy into their mission. Well, at Birkbeck, it is an achieved goal. You can sense the commitment to the university’s mission at each one of your interactions either with the professors or with the staff. I have always been amazed that everybody will make that extra effort to help you thrive in your studies and achieve your goals as you are trying to balance your work life and your studies.

My story with Birkbeck did not stop at the end of my second masters. Indeed, as I expressed my interest in joining the full-time PhD programme while highlighting my financial constraints, my supervisors suggested applying to few scholarships which I eagerly did. After a few weeks, I was approved for the Winton STEM PhD Studentship, which aims to promote gender equality in STEM subjects.

The support from Winton has indeed made it possible for me to join the full-time PhD programme in Mathematics. There are no words that really capture how grateful I am to Winton for their support and for giving me the opportunity to pursue a long-term ambition which is to build a career in research in Mathematics either within the academic world or within a research firm. The subject of my PhD is about optimizing one of the advanced approximation methods (Meshfree method) in multivariate setting.  It is a cutting-edge subject with multiple applications in several fields such as engineering, machine learning and artificial intelligence. I am extremely proud to be working on this subject with my supervisors who are experts in the field.

Through my PhD, I have also had the opportunity to take part in an outreach conference jointly organised by Birkbeck and Winton. At the conference, we encouraged young women from schools in disadvantaged London boroughs to consider studying mathematics at university. It was a privilege and an amazing experience to see the impact of the conference on these girls and to see how it changed their perspective on using their mathematical talent.

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Religion on trial

Dr Anton Schütz, senior lecturer at the School of Law reflects on the school’s annual ‘Law on Trial’ week, which this year focused on the theme of religion.lawontrial850x450From Monday 12 June to Friday 16 June, the School of Law, Birkbeck hosted the 2017 edition of its annual Law on Trial event.

The School of Law has staged a Law on Trial event each year since 2011, when it was introduced, on the basis of an original idea of Marinos Diamantides, by former Executive Dean Patricia Tuitt, who also contributed the formulation of the title. The theme for 2017 was ‘Religion on Trial’. Religion is generally understood as a human sphere with an existence and a concern very much of its own, though with a number of points of intersection with matters legal. Especially during the past two or three decades, matters of religion have provided an inexhaustible source for legal problems.

The first event of the week was taken by our key-note speaker, philosopher Akeel Bilgrami (Columbia University). Akeel led the audience through the problems that the political and legal philosophy of liberalism encounters in dealing with religion, and increasingly so since the beginning of the 21st century. Referring historically to a choice among the main topics of his own widely known writing (see his Secularism, Identity and Enchantment), foregrounding Gandhi’s example-based, rather than program-based political action, Salman Rushdie’s exemplification of the divide of artistic and religious imperatives in dealing with identity but also the author of the most celebrated political doctrine of liberal justice during the late 20th century, John Rawls, and his difficulty related to identity politics and deep religious commitments.

The programme of our second evening was placed under the sign of Rastafari religion, music, and forms of life, and was based on an idea from Patricia Tuitt. Author and poet Kwame Dawes was speaking and indeed — in his quotes from Bob Marley — also, if only for short moments, also singing, in a fabulous feat of bringing to life what Rastafari poetry calls the ‘Babylon system’ (‘vampire system, sucking the blood of the sufferah’), relating spiritual, political, geographical, iconographical, prophetic and cosmological features to spot issues of diaspora, oppression and liberation in a relation that is at once timeless and highly contemporary. Kwame Dawes‘study on Bob Marley, Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius, is celebrated all over the English-speaking world. The session was chaired by Oscar Guardiola-Rivera.

The session on Rastafarianism was followed by two sessions on topics related to current issues relating to Islam. The first, on Wednesday 14 June, convened by Birkbeck scholar Qudsia Mirza, staged the long-awaited and hotly disputed topic of Islamic Law and Gender Justice. Interpretations of the Qur’an and the Hadith literature within the classical Islamic tradition have famously given rise, based upon theological, legal and ethical principles, to a normative gender hierarchy. The teachings of Sharia are not a secret and neither are the challenges to them by reformist and progressive scholars. Islamic feminism in general, and the participants of our session in particular, have taken measure of the distance still to be bridged with respect to current notions of gender equality. How do reformists/feminists conceptualise notions of gender or equality? How, on the other hand, do issues of gender, widely discussed today, relate to the notion of an Islamic ‘purity of origin’ and to a discourse of authenticity? The panel contemplated the wide spectre of Western and non-Western religious and not-so-religious positions.

Rather different in its outlook was the second Islam-related session, Thursday 15 June , convened by a BBK PhD student Daniele D’Alvia (who also works in a Max-Planck-Institute in Germany) and chaired by Maria Aristodemou, dealt with the topic ‘Islamic Finance: the Middle East, Malaysia, and the West’. Once again, a highly qualified and bespoke-tailored international panel offered a fascinating debate dealing with conceptions of gharar and riba, in contrast to current Western conceptualisations of risk and interest. Doing so, it showed the presence of two different, almost opposing views on the relationship between current Western financial habits and the relevant Sharia rules. Some speakers highlighted the Sharia framework as a possible alternative to the current habits of the global financial markets (with their widely felt instability), something of a global therapy for the latter’s increasing, world-wide exposure to structural, self-engendered crises Other panel members saw the primary problem in the obstacles that Islamic populations are facing, when they are precluded from being clients of Western style global financial institutions, ascribing highest importance to the search of viable strategies of circumvention of Islamic rules of finance.

The fifth and last day of the series, on Friday 16 June , saw the launch event of a study, co-authored by Marinos Diamantides and Anton Schütz, two School of Law academics, that had been released that same week — Political Theology : Demystifying the Universal. Differing from the two preceding sessions, this focussed not on one particular religion opposed to other religions, but on the apparently non-religious question of the secular. With Stewart Motha (chair), Diamantides and Schütz tried to explain how the very stakes of Western-Christian religion have worked as conditions, rather than obstacles, to a society defining itself as secular (liberal, social) and its world-wide success and imitation. They commonly stressed that the secular religion of the West consists in an ongoing effort of managing continuing procedures. The return of explicit religious references under such circumstances was the subject of one ‘case-study’ (Diamantides), while Schütz, focussing on the theologoumenon of the Trinity and its geopolitical fate, explored the politico-legal relationship of Father and Son within the Christian Trinity in its Western evolution. The doctrine known as the ‘filioque’ has, through more than a millennium, transformed the Trinitarian God by endowing Father and Son, by assigning identical ‘rights’ to both, thereby implanting an unresolvable tension, a principle of intranquillity, at the very heart of the Western Christian divinity, altering it from a principle of being into its contrary, a principle of action.

Through the five days of Religion on Trial the public has been guided through: (1) a portrayal, by one of its international top representatives, of the divide between religion and politics in contemporary scholarly interpretation; (2) an in-depth depiction of the vital link of art and religion in Bob Marley’s poetry and its indispensable relationship to the unique and uniquely complex and attractive religious tradition of Rastafarianism, provided by the top international specialist on the matter; (3,4) two matters of extreme actuality in relation of contemporary Islam, the issue of the normative gender dissymmetry and that of contemporary modes of Islamic finance, both presented by highly qualified specialist panels; all rounded up in (5) a series of suggestions concerning the specifically Christian input within the Western model, in its religious as well as secular dimensions.

I would like to thank all of our guest speakers and panellists who helped to make the event such a success and greatly look forward to next year’s events.

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