Thursday, June 28, 2012

Parallel lives in fiction: Murdoch, Barnes, the Man Booker prize

As if by chance, the first novel I picked up after finishing my reading group's current selection was the latest (2011) winner of the Man Booker Prize: The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes. I walked into Pegasus Books on Shattuck Avenue, spied it on a display shelf, and there you have it.

For my reading group I'd just finished Iris Murdoch's The Sea, The Sea, which also won the Booker Prize -- in 1978.

Is it odd or is it predictable that 33 years later the prize was awarded to a novel that echoed the theme in Murdoch's 1978 prizewinner, and is narrated by a protagonist-narrator that also echoed her own?

Let's see how they compare -- spoilers are minimized but inevitable in the synopses that follow ... caveat lector:

Murdoch, The Sea, The Sea: Charles Arrowby has retired from the London theatre and bought a home on the coast of England. The novel is the diary he begins to keep -- or perhaps it's a biography, Arrowby isn't sure as he sets out (Since I started writing this 'book or whatever it is I have felt as if I were walking about in a dark cavern... -- that's at page 75 of nearly 500). His narrative swirls and circles around the many women in his life until it settles into obsessively steady orbit around a first, childhood love, never consumated, with Mary Hartley Smith, a girl he grew up with, whom he always called by her middle-name, Hartley. Hartley, he explains, beginning on that selfsame page, 75, deliberately disappeared from Arrowby's life shortly after he left the town where they grew up together to attend university. One day she was gone, and no one could or would help Arrowby find her. Hartley had already told Arrowby she would not marry him, as they had planned and promised each other. Devastated by her sudden, unexpected, never-explained vanishing, he has carried a torch ever since, and has looked for Hartley -- or says he has -- everywhere and always. By chance (it's a novel, people), their paths cross in the small hamlet where Arrowby has bought his home by the sea. She is married, unhappily it seems. Arrowby longs to rekindle the romance he has burnished over the many years that have passed. He goes to, um, considerable lengths in pursuit of this goal.

Barnes, The Sense of an Ending: At boarding school, Tony Webster is close friends with two other boys, and the three are joined by a fourth. Adrian is the latecomer to the school; he brightly outshines his new friends. When the boys go their separate ways to university, Tony tells the reader, The original three wrote less often and less enthusiastically to one another than we did to Adrian [...] we each thought we were -- and deserved to be -- closest to him. At university, Tony has a brief and discomfiting affair with Veronica Mary Elizabeth Ford. It's a strange pairing. Her family, he thinks, treats him disdainfully on a weekend visit to her home, in that classist way one finds so regularly in British life and fiction. The two don't have "full sex" except for once -- and that after they have stopped seeing each other. Subsequently, Veronica becomes lovers with Adrian. The new lovers deliver news of their relationship to Tony in a jointly-written letter. Tony does not take the news well. A few months later Adrian commits suicide. Decades after that, Veronica's mother passes away and leaves £500 and Adrian's diary to Tony in her will. Tony can't imagine how Veronica's mother came to possess the diary. This inexplicable and wholly unforeseen resurgence of his past leads Tony to track down Veronica and orbit, obsessively, around re-establishing a connection -- and perhaps a romance? -- with her. Oh, and about getting his hands on Adrian's diary.

In each novel, the woman by whom the protagonist is obsessed is living a life the protagonist cannot grasp. Neither protagonist "gets it" -- it being the real life of the woman he imagines himself to be after. Neither can see through the scrim of remembered pasts, scrims composed of distant events that have taken on the weight of personal mythology, encrusted with layers of meaning accreted long after the events themselves occurred.

Romance is rekindled in neither story.

In each book, the name by which the protagonist called his beloved is not the name she uses in her adult life. Matter of fact, in both cases the names used in adulthood by the pursued women is Mary. Veronica becomes Mary. And Hartley becomes Mary.

Weird, eh?

I'm not the first to notice the correspondence between these two Booker Prize winners. From Mr. D. James "nonsuch" on Amazon and elsewhere, reviewing the Barnes novel:
Why, for instance, should Tony continually pursue a girl, then the girl as woman, who was only using him as a plaything? It makes no sense to him or the reader. Is it sufficient to say that it is the donnée on which the whole book rests, just as other obsessives, like for instance Kemal in The Museum of Innocence or Charles Arrowby in The Sea, The Sea, expend vast energies in pursuit hopeless causes?
I don't think it's surprising, or in any way bad, that plots, themes, and characters recur in fiction. I think it's more-or-less inevitable.

In a post on fiction categories a couple years ago I cited Christopher Booker's categorization of all plot in fiction into seven types. The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories lists them as:
  1. Overcoming the Monster
  2. Rags to Riches
  3. The Quest
  4. Voyage and Return
  5. Comedy
  6. Tragedy
  7. Rebirth
Barnes' and Murdoch's novels? Perhaps they're Voyage and Return, spiced by both Comedy and Tragedy. Something like that.

It is only fair to note that in some respects the books are as different from each other as rags and riches.

Murdoch's Charles Arrowby natters on and on and on: about what he eats, his swims in the sea, the women with whom he made whoopie, his endless conjectures and plans and clumsy forays into the life of an erstwhile love who will not have him back again, the pretty colored stones he collects and arranges around his lawn, his rival cousin James who is some kind of British spy or general or Orientalist or mystic or all the above. Five hundred pages of self-centered disquisition, punctuated by anchovy toasts and canned clams and spaghetti with a little bit of butter and dried basil.

Barnes' Tony Webster closes out his tale at page 163 of the edition I have in hand, and if there aren't twice as many words on each of Murdoch's pages I'll eat my Penguin edition. Where Charles tells us everything, Tony confides little, and what he confides he confides elliptically. Had I read his review before I read Barnes' novel, I'm afraid I'd have found myself agreeing with Geoff Dyer, who wrote on 16 December 2011 in the NY Times:
The paucity of action gives Tony ample opportunity to reflect on — and enact — the self-serving and self-deceiving workings of memory. “Again, I must stress that this is my reading now of what happened then. Or rather, my memory now of my reading then of what was happening at the time, ” Tony declares in one of several reiterations of the book’s central ideas.

These ideas might better be termed commonplaces. But while commonplaces tend to dress themselves up in their Sunday best to assume greater weight, Barnes has always treated them lightly so that, by a kind of negation of the negation, they are taken . . . seriously! (Note Barnes’s pre-emptive body swerve: announced early on, one of Adrian’s pet aversions is “the way the English have of not being serious about being serious.”) Something similar operates at the level of feeling. The author’s famous restraint and withholding take on the form — and are evidence — of a powerful emotion that is being held in. How do we detect this submerged pressure of emotion? By the fact that it has been so thoroughly restrained as to appear nonexistent. Absence is proof of presence.

I found both The Sea, The Sea and The Sense of an Ending frustrating, but I don't suppose their protagonists could inspire any other response. They are themselves frustrated, mightily. I hasten to point out, though, that my frustration had nothing to do with recurring themes, or with any sense that Barnes was cribbing from Murdoch.

I don't mind recurring themes, I expect them. Themes recur in our own lives, and in the lives of those we know and love -- why shouldn't they crop up again and again in fiction? We examine the facets of our lives' recurring themes from many angles, and from perspectives that shift as we age.

What's your response to recognizing in one book a thematic echo first encountered in a book you've read before?



Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Making dolmas for my reading group
The Compromise: Sergei Dovlatov, there and here
Old books, new insights
Opera for the Neophyte in War and Peace
More on fiction categories


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