When Words Are Not Enough: Prufrock Revisited

The Sense of an EndingThe Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster shells;
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent…

So begins T.S. Eliot’s anti-epic “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and while the navel-gazing of those so addicted to the easy comforts of their own shortcomings has become much more entertaining in the years since the Jazz Age, its near omnipresence as a genre does not make Julian Barnes’ “The Sense of an Ending” any less brutal in its verdict on the passively pompous, those who float from moment to moment in life, self-important in their somnambulation.

The story begins genially enough, seemingly a prep school memoir of Tony Webster, whose dominant memory of those days seems to be the appearance of Adrian, who was much more perceptive and prescient than Tony, Colin, and Alex — the rest of his circle — much to their chagrin.

Tony is much too busy telling us about his own lack of gratification to notice what is going on around him much of the time, even some fairly crucial happenings in his life. He does look up long enough to note Adrian’s definition of history: “that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.” On Webster’s end, of course, most of the fault is memory, which in his case is eroded by self-centeredness, if not outright self-pity.

Much of the early part of the book details Tony’s failed relationship with Veronica; most of the failings have to do with the fact that they never have sex — until after they break up. On a weekend visit to Veronica’s family, her mother eerily warns Tony not to let Veronica “get away with too much.” Without giving away too much, it can be said that this may be one of the most effective examples of irony in all of modern literature.

Not long after Tony and Veronica break up, Veronica and Adrian start dating. They write Tony a letter to break the news to him; the response that Tony pens is simply cruel. The fact that Tony can go so far into his memoir without mentioning the letter until Victoria gives it to him, years later, shows how he has glossed over his own sins.

Tony then goes to America and travels the country for a time, enjoying what he considers the most rewarding relationship of his life, a dalliance with an independent woman named Annie who gives Tony perhaps what he wants most of all — someone who wants nothing from him. Upon his return, though, he finds that Adrian has committed suicide. Any sense of grief is hurriedly plastered over with smart remarks, though.

Decades later, when Tony is in his sixties, Veronica’s mother dies, bequeathing Tony 500 British pounds and Adrian’s diary. Unfortunately, Veronica has the diary and only sends Tony one page of it, claiming to have burned the rest. She agrees to meet Tony and shows him more and more of what her life has become, until he understands the fragment of the diary, Adrian’s suicide, the true nature of Veronica’s mother, and Veronica’s own enduring anger.

Not, of course, until Veronica has told him that he still hasn’t gotten it. Many times. Or, as Eliot’s mysterious woman said, “That is not what I meant at all; That is not it, at all.”

The danger of failing to reach your dreams is that it is extremely possible to turn that disappointment into a soft bitterness toward others. By insulating himself from all meaningful contact with the outside world, Tony has left himself safe, but also powerless. Ultimately, all he can say, when confronted with the full consequences of the letter he wrote on a whim, out of anger, he can only say, “There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest.” His first impulse, even when broaching the topic of accountability, is to distance himself from the whole mess.

One can see Tony Webster saying this, sitting, as Prufrock did, “in the chambers of the sea by sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown till human voices wake us, and we drown.”

Barnes’ work is masterful in its lyrical turns of phrase, as he creates a protagonist who is too busy writing lyrically to notice that there is no one in his life left to read them.

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