On Short Novels, The Sense of an Ending, and Julian Barnes

Monday, October 31, 2011

The pages of my copy of The Sense of an Ending, the gripping new novel by Julian Barnes, had not been cut.  I had to slip my finger in between each one as I lay reading at the close of a snowy weekend.  This pleased me greatly.  The feel of the paper against my skin.  The sound of a story unfolding.

I am always confused by critics of the short novel—by those who refer to the shorter novel as something lesser than.  I remember a conversation with Alice McDermott (Charming Billy, That Night, At Weddings and Wakes), in which she spoke of writing the kind of stories she herself liked to read—shorter and more compact novels, densified worlds, intimate places, landscapes of measured, studied sentences.

Yes.  Me, too.  The short novel may or may not be about plot, may or may not be commercial (whatever that is).  But when it is handled with the intelligence of an Alice McDermott or a Julian Barnes or a Julia Otsuka or a Kate Chopin or a Michael Ondaatje (Coming Through Slaughter) or a Chloe Aridjis or a Kathryn Davis or an Anne Enright, for example, I personally think there is nothing finer.  Brilliant short novels have the impact of poems.  They are, most often, shorter precisely because the writer has taken the time to banish the extraneous and diluting, the self-aggrandizing or -indulgent.  There is a story to be told.  There is its core and there are those things essential to its core.  The brilliant writer of shorter novels holds that line, maintains his or her focus, goes blessedly deep, does not skip from this event to that—indeed, does not concentrate on "events" at all.  Character and meaning, language and symbol, the ripe stuff.  Brilliant short novels concentrate, primarily, on that.

I know many who would disagree, and that's the beauty of this literary community—the possibility of conversation, dissension.  (And of course I have many beloved books on my shelf that run past 300 pages, though I will admit that I don't have many favorites that run past 400.)  But I hope no one will disagree with me about this new book by Julian Barnes.  From the first sentence to the last I hardly exhaled.  The entire book was of such a piece that I felt certain that Barnes himself was sitting here, telling this story about a man, Tony Webster, resorting the memories of his youth.  Webster had thought himself a regular-enough student with a regular-enough first love affair.  He had gotten on with his life and lived it reasonably well.  But when he learns that he has been remembered in a will in an odd and oddly disturbing way, and when, over time, he is presented with evidence of who he really was as a young man, he is staggered in the way that we all are staggered when presented with contradictions of our own fine self-opinion.

Barnes, whose Nothing to Be Frightened Of, is a fine and teachable book of nonfiction, puts his philosophical genius on full display in this novel, his great capacity for going deep.  One example of many:

And so, for the first time, I began to feel a more general remorse—a feeling somewhat between self-pity and self-hatred—about my whole life.  All of it.  I had lost the friends of my youth.  I had lost the love of my wife.  I had abandoned the ambitions I had entertained.  I had wanted life not to bother me too much, and had succeeded—and how pitiful that was.
He also demonstrates his talent for plotting (yes, short novels have plots, too—it's just not what drives them), for surprise, for mystery, even.  The Sense of an Ending is a rich story, a riveting one.  If you haven't yet encountered Barnes, I suggest you start with this.


Serena said...

I am with you. I want a powerful economy of words, though I do love a Stephen King tome now and again...Like reading IT for the second time since I was 10...what a difference.

Melissa Sarno said...

I like short novels. I like stories that get in and out of the heart the matter quickly and with tight language. I also wish that films were no longer than 90 minutes. I don't know what that has to do with anything. Just felt like sharing.

Wendy said...

Oh, I agree, Beth - I think some of the best books are the shorter ones. Peirene Press puts out some terrific books (mostly in translation) which are less than 200 pages...two which I really loved were Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Delius...which spanned only 105 pages, and Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal which was only 126 pages. And Tinkers by Paul Harding (which won the Pulitzer last year) was amazing...and very short. Of course, I also include YOUR books in some of the best short fiction out there :)

Sarah Allen said...

This made me feel better, in a way, because my first manuscript is looking like its gonna end up at around 85,000, which is totally fine, but still on the short side. I like the short ones too. I think all lengths have their place, and it matters more to me how well a piece is written then how long it is. That's the point, isn't it?

Sarah Allen
(my creative writing blog)

Lilian Nattel said...

I love short novels. I'm putting this on my list.

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