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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How to be both: An audience with author Ali Smith

This post was contributed by Birkbeck alumnus and staff member, Dr Ben Winyard. Dr Winyard attended the 2015 Man Booker at Birkbeck event, featuring Man Booker 2014 shortlisted author, Ali Smith

Ali Smith in conversation with Prof Russell Celyn Jones

Ali Smith in conversation with Prof Russell Celyn Jones

On 16 November, in a lively, humorous exchange, Birkbeck’s Professor of Creative Writing Russell Celyn Jones and novelist Ali Smith discussed her Booker Prize nominated novel, How To Be Both (2014). This dazzling, rambunctious novel features two self-contained but intertwined stories: one follows the travails of Italian Renaissance fresco painter, Francesco del Cossa, a real-life artist who painted a series of elaborate allegorical frescos in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, northern Italy; the other story tells of George, a bereaved twenty-first-century teenager who is remembering a family trip to Italy to view del Cossa’s frescos in the ‘Palace of Not Being Bored’.

With its focus on Renaissance art, and painting in particular, the novel is itself a diptych – or ‘dipstick’, as Smith drolly punned to the audience – presenting two separate but intersecting stories in dialogue with one another. The diptych – which literally means ‘two fold’ in ancient Greek – is, Smith explained, book-like in its construction, with hinges that enable it to be closed and transported, making it an appealingly ‘swivel-able form’. In the UK, the book was published in dual form, with half of the copies opening with the del Cossa narrative and the other half opening with the story of George. Smith recounted with delight how the printers hired ‘muddlers’ to randomise the packing of the books and ensure that shops carried both versions of the novel. For Smith, it is important that readers can ‘upend’ the novel and ‘it still works’.

Confounding binary oppositions

Ali Smith-How to be bothThe novel delights in interrogating, unpicking and confounding the binarised oppositions that organise and delimit human life and relationships: male and female; straight and gay; past and present; and even alive and dead. The complex twisting and interleaving of the two stories typifies the ways in which history, memory, feeling, gender and sexuality elude and shrug off human categorisation. George is a boyish young woman with a man’s name who falls in love with another woman, whereas del Cossa is a woman who uses concealment and disguise to reinvent herself as a male artist. The del Cossa narrative opens poetically and strangely with the forcible resurrection of the long-dead del Cossa, who finds herself standing in the National Gallery in London, observing George – whom she mistakes for a boy – scrutinising del Cossa’s stern portrait of St. Vincent Ferrer, a Dominican friar and missionary. The painting is real and is indeed hanging in the National Gallery.

Interestingly, Smith confessed that George’s gender identity was indeterminate when she started working on the novel; it was only later that George became female. Indeed, Smith described the fictional creation of character as a mode of channelling, in which characters arrive fully formed and the task of the novelist is to give them the necessary attention and time to allow their voices to come through. The voice of del Cossa was the first that Smith heard, forcing her to discard 90 pages of the novel she had written and leaving her only seven months in which to complete and submit the manuscript. George’s voice and syntax came, fully formed, about half-way through this rewrite. Smith offered several helpful tips for budding authors, stressing the importance of ‘editing as writing’ and focusing on repetitions, as ‘they’re the things you’re most interested in’. The novel, like its characters, must be patiently listened to and Smith repeatedly emphasised the importance of voice in writing.

del Cossa, a man in and out of history

Man Booker at Birkbeck 2015 event held at Friends-House

Man Booker at Birkbeck 2015 event held at Friends-House

How To Be Both is concerned with history and memory, with what is remembered and how – and what is lost. As Smith observed, humans need to live in three dimensions, to feel connected to the past and the future simultaneously. Del Cossa was a real artist, although we know very little about him: he was born in Ferrara in 1435 or 1436, the son of a stonemason, and he died aged forty, in Ferrara, possibly of the plague. In later times, Del Cossa’s frescos were plastered over and the room used as a tobacco store until, Smith explained, the plaster flaked off in the 1840s and the frescos were rediscovered. Archival letters, in which del Cossa angrily demands more money from his patron (a request his patron loftily refused), are another scanty source of evidence.

The unknown history of the artist, however, gave Smith licence to re-gender and reimagine the life of del Cossa; as Smith drolly admitted, ‘I got away with it!’ In the 1960s, floods in Italy hastened the temporary removal of the frescos from their walls, which further revealed what Smith called the ‘under-versions’ or original sketches and images that had been painted over. The frescos thus stand as a metaphor for thinking about human life and history as a palimpsest, with layers of accretion and loss shaping what becomes ‘History’ or collective memory. Smith gleefully confessed to her excitement in bringing to light the ‘undertows’ that are wilfully concealed or later forgotten.

Thus, in the novel, George is anxious that all that is forgotten is lost, making history little more than a horrifying charnel house. Her mother, though, has a more mystical understanding, insisting that that which has existed does not simply cease because we can no longer see, experience or remember it. For Smith, it is Art that takes us to a timeless place of fragile ‘lastingness’ within ourselves. She spoke of Walter Benjamin’s notion of ‘jetztzeit’ (‘now-time’), the moment of epiphany instigated by Art, in which we know we are truly alive and time disappears. Smith also spoke of the novelists’ frustration with the form, as it cannot escape the temporal sequence of action and consequence and is incapable of simultaneously representing the simultaneous occurrences of everyday life.

To know George’s future, the reader must journey back into the life of del Cossa, although, if you encounter the del Cossa section first, you will know (but not necessarily fully understand) George’s future before you know her past. Like last year’s Man Booker speaker, Hilary Mantel, Smith has written a historical novel of sorts, although Smith’s is formally inventive and playfully cuts across genres. Smith admitted that her knowledge of the Renaissance was limited and she undertook broad-brush research to immerse herself in the period without being overwhelmed by details. Smith thus urged the creative writing students in the audience to research lightly in order to give themselves ‘imaginative space’.

Under surveillance

A VIP reception was held after the event at the Keynes Library

A VIP reception was held after the event at the Keynes Library

The novel is also concerned with surveillance, observation, witnessing and spectatorship, in all their benevolent and more menacing forms. Indeed, Smith insisted to the audience that ‘surveillance is the story of our times’. George’s mother, whose voice we only hear via George’s recollections, is worried that her past, radical political activities mean she is under state surveillance, while George herself obsessively watches Lisa Goliard, a friend of her mother’s. George angsts about the ethics of watching and is particularly concerned that the pained performer in a pornographic scene she has watched online is stuck in what Smith called a ‘kind of continual present’. George thus obsessively and continually witnesses and memorialises the performer’s suffering. Our contemporary culture of forcible remembrance is, for Smith, ‘lovely and kind of appalling’, as we have lost the old ability to let go of, and simply forget, the past. Similarly, by scrutinising the painting of St. Vincent, George miraculously and unintentionally resurrects the spirit of del Cossa, who silently watches her. To foreground the ethics of watching, the illustrated frontispiece to the del Cossa story, drawn by Smith’s partner Sarah Wood, features del Cossa’s image of the gouged out eyes of Saint Lucy, which he painted not on a platter, as is usual in Renaissance iconography of the saint, but growing from a small sprout.

Although Smith attentively and gamely engaged with the various readings of her novel proffered by the audience, she ultimately reasserted the work’s capaciousness and playfulness of spirit, insisting ‘I’m not going to tell you what to think about the book.’ For Smith, ‘the reading experience is really volatile’ and she expounded how rereading shifts a novel’s meanings and resonances for us.

This was the fifth Man Booker event at Birkbeck – previous speakers include Sarah Waters, Kazuo Ishiguro, Alan Hollinghurst and Hilary Mantel – and this lively exchange further confirmed and extended the success of this rewarding partnership. As David Latchman, the Master of Birkbeck, observed in his opening remarks, the Booker Prize Foundation and Birkbeck both share an ongoing, deep commitment to broadening knowledge, bringing the best of contemporary fiction to the widest possible audience, and belying cramped, utilitarian approaches to education.

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Man Booker at Birkbeck 2013: Alan Hollinghurst

This post was contributed by Birkbeck alumnus Dr Ben Winyard.

On 27 November, in a wide-ranging, vibrant and thought-provoking exchange, novelist Alan Hollinghurst and Birkbeck’s professor of Creative Writing Russell Celyn Jones considered the crafting, reception and afterlives of Hollinghurst’s Booker Prize-winning novel, The Line of Beauty, alongside Hollinghurst’s biography, literary influences and writing practices. With many Birkbeck creative writing and English literature students in the audience, the conversation naturally turned to the craft and discipline of writing, the origins and development of plot, narrative and character, and the overlaps and dissonances between autobiography and fiction. As the purveyor of what the Guardian termed – in a tone falling short of complimentary – ‘high literary style and low-rent sex’, Hollinghurst was unruffled by searching queries about gay male life, sex between men, drugs, the AIDS crisis and Thatcherite politics.

The Line of Beauty opens in the summer of 1983. That summer, in which AIDS began to impact forcefully on British life, appears, in retrospect, a fulcrum on which subsequent gay history turned. Indeed the novel is ostensibly a historical one – albeit history within living memory for many – and it taps into a gay tradition of using history fictionally to frame and explore the sexual self. Hollinghurst spoke openly about the problem of AIDS for male gay writers; the author felt pressure throughout the early, frightening and politically-charged years of the pandemic to represent the suffering and loss of gay men, particularly in the face of official intransigence and popular homophobia. Hollinghurst himself lost friends to the disease, but it was only with The Line of Beauty that he felt finally able to satisfactorily represent the ‘queasy situation’ of AIDS impinging on new-found gay freedoms. AIDS is, like many communicable diseases, literary in its metaphoric permutations and its usefulness as an authorial tool for imposing moral meaning and order, but the roster of infected, dying and dead at the close of the novel suggests less a moral structure than the virus’s banal randomness.

The novel’s protagonist is Nick Guest, a gay Oxford graduate newly arrived in London, and events are mediated through him alone. Hollinghurst spoke of his wish to emulate Henry James in presenting experience with the intensity of one protagonist’s solitary viewpoint, and he sought to apply James’s fastidious powers of social analysis to the situations he was depicting, exposing a ‘seedy and corrupt world’. Hollinghurst confessed to taking a Jamesian delight in ruthlessly dissecting social intercourse, exposing what lies beneath social niceties – ‘all the things not said or that can’t be said’. For Hollinghurst, there were clear parallels between the callous dog-eat-dog culture of the 1980s and the fin de siècle era of the 1890s so adroitly analysed by James. Hollinghurst spoke amusingly of his concerted efforts to overcome his ‘terror’ of James’s notoriously dense novels, joining a reading group dedicated to just such a task. Celyn Jones observed the parallels between James’s and Hollinghurst’s precise use of ornate language that captures and holds a moment.

Applied to Nick, ‘hero’ is perhaps too grandiose a term for a character drawn with such studied ambivalence and so divisive in his reception by readers. Nick is, as his surname suggests, a visitor, lodging indefinitely and with little settled purpose in the home of Toby Fedden, his straight undergraduate friend. In the exquisitely appointed, aesthetically captivating environs of the Feddens’ Notting Hill mansion, Nick is beguiled by the wealth, manners and exalted social status of the family, becoming the de facto carer-companion of their psychologically troubled daughter, Catherine, while providing general support to Gerald Fedden, a boorish, newly elected Tory MP, and his captivating and refined society wife, Rachel.

Hollinghurst spoke at length about Nick’s uncertain status as both insider and outsider: he is highly educated (‘stuffed with knowledge’ in his creator’s words), self-confident and socially outgoing, eliciting trust from the highest ranking members of the ruling classes. Indeed, in one of the novel’s most brilliantly cheeky and admired vignettes, Nick, high on coke and just returned from a threesome, asks Margaret Thatcher to dance with him at the Feddens’ grimly self-aggrandising silver anniversary party. However, Nick is also secretly gay, sexually and socially inexperienced (initially), anxious about his background, and he exists in an ambivalent space between classes, lacking upper-class breeding and nous but possessing an education, aesthetic sense and sexual orientation that distinguish him from his tediously respectable bourgeois parents. Hollinghurst confessed that the amusing but painful scene in which Nick returns home and is embarrassed by, and condescending towards, his parents was ‘a rather personal experience’. Nick is though, Hollinghurst insisted, ‘a distinct fictional character’ and he expressed wonderment at the ‘fascinating, unknowable variables’ that arise when new readers ‘create [the novel] afresh’. One questioner asked if Hollinghurst imaginatively carried his protagonists with him; Hollinghurst confessed that he is usually ‘pleased to see the back of them’ – ‘I don’t terribly like [them]’.

Hollinghurst referred to Nick as ‘a political blank’ who allows his thirst for the aesthetic to mould his behaviour and shape his experience. Nick thus follows the line of beauty – the ogee – a double ‘s’ curve identified by William Hogarth as an underlying aesthetic principle in his derided 1753 Analysis of Beauty. Hogarth, rather like Nick – and perhaps a little like Hollinghurst – was the son of a middling family who used his artistic prowess to leverage his way into the upper echelons. For Hogarth, The Analysis of Beauty offered a means of bringing aesthetic knowledge and pleasure to ordinary people, while Hogarth’s art, rather like Hollinghurst’s, uses an outsider’s eye to dissect upper-class mores, foibles and hypocrisies. Hollinghurst considered how his focus on the upper-classes allowed him to tap into a rich literary heritage and admitted that upper-class ‘people are tremendously fun to write about because they’re rich enough to behave so badly’.

Like the ogee, Nick’s life follows two parallel but separate paths: one his ‘official’ life of wealth, comfort and politely received doctoral research into the novels of Henry James (a wry reference to Hollinghurst’s own Jamesian preoccupations); the other is his hidden life of initially tentative and then increasingly compulsive and brutish sex and drug-taking. Nick exhibits less desire for its own sake than a calculated Wildean eagerness to prioritise beauty and experience over morality; what Hollinghurst sought to explore through Nick is ‘the limitation of being led through life by your sense of beauty’.

The novel seethes with barely concealed secrets, as Nick first embarks upon a tentative, romantic affair with the closeted Leo and then a destructive, loveless affair with the cold, jaded and self-loathing Wani. Increasingly, Nick becomes enamoured with secrecy itself, revelling in his risky sauntering between the two worlds he keeps separate. Nick’s increasingly outré adventures are later served as a tabloid side-dish to Gerald’s adultery, eliciting his stinging eviction from the cosseted world of the Feddens. It is Catherine Fedden, with her manic depression (which her father maintains a wilful stupidity about), unsuitable lower-class boyfriends and visceral distaste for the smothering hypocrisy of her own class, who, Cassandra-like, speaks the truth of the outsider and brings down the artifice of her parents’ – and Nick’s – lives. The double helix of the ogee also suggested, to one questioner, a tension in the novel between the public and the private, between privacy and surveillance, which Hollinghurst admiringly admitted he hadn’t considered before.

In the decade in which Wham! famously encouraged ‘young guns’ to ‘go for it’, Nick’s descent into hard-heartedness and unthinking, repetitious excess suggests one destination for those following the line of beauty. From the range of reactions expressed by readers at the event – from sympathy, identification and admiration, to irritation, dislike and even hatred – it is clear that the mutable character of Nick continues to abundantly evoke the ‘fascinating, unknowable’ responses that Hollinghurst so enjoys.

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Man Booker at Birkbeck – Kazuo Ishiguro

This post was provided by Emma Curry, a PhD student in the Department of English and Humanities, working on Dickens’s representations of objects and body parts.

Last year’s inaugural Man Booker event at Birkbeck was an entertaining and fascinating evening, and this year’s discussion between Prof. Russell Celyn Jones and Kazuo Ishiguro (or ‘Ish’ as he was happy to be referred to) continued that high standard. The talk was warm, witty and wide-ranging: Ishiguro spoke at length on his connections with Japan, his writing practices, his use of different voices within his novels, his interest in both individual and collective memory, and the place of art in an exploration of what it means to be human.

As someone with an interest in the process of novel-to-screen adaptations, it was particularly fascinating to hear Ishiguro talk about the film versions of The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go. He amusingly revealed that whilst he is credited as ‘executive producer’ on Never Let Me Go, he has very little idea what this title actually means! It was also interesting to hear in this part of the discussion about the process of writerly exchange: whilst Ishiguro writes screenplays, he prefers not to adapt his own work: instead the screenwriter for Never Let Me Go was Alex Garland, who in turn is himself an author, having written the novel (but not the screenplay) The Beach. Whilst some writers dislike the film adaptations of their work, Ishiguro praised what he called the ‘natural’ alliance between the novel and the cinema, suggesting that it was an important connection to both cement and develop in an age of somewhat formulaic, brainless blockbusters.

The discussion was followed by questions from the audience, all of which Ishiguro answered generously and thoughtfully. All in all, the evening was highly enjoyable and a fascinating exploration of a writer’s motivations and inspirations. It uncovered fresh approaches to Never Let Me Go, as well as providing some encouraging suggestions and amusing thoughts on the creation of fiction in general. I look forward to reading much more of Ishiguro’s work!

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