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“…our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but-mainly-to ourselves-” Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending.
So says the protagonist, Tony Webster,of the Man Booker Prize winning novel, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. In a nutshell, the novel is precisely just that-A man in his 60s looking back, retelling and re-examining his life’s story and certain events in them. However, it isn’t a Charles Dickenish kind of a novel where Copperfield will look at each and every event of his life and bore us to death. The story of his life that Tony tells us and perhaps to himself too is quite a succinct, precise one with frequent ramblings on the importance and unreliability of memory and passing of time and life in general. And that is how Barnes’ prose also works: clean and full of precision-a kind of no nonsense, no frills, not too overtly nostalgic look at one’s life.
The novel is divided into two parts. The first part is a quick look at the Tony’s life in school with his group of friends and how they meet the intellectual and seemingly serious Adrian Finn. He talks of his college life, his girlfriend Veronica and how things get complicated in that relationship. With a witty and engaging narration, Tony gives in a good, tongue-in-cheek manner all that there is to school and teenage life-friends, love, college, partying, being together and promising a sincere lifelong contact and a kind of innocent idealism about everything. But this not in a cliched style that will make you retch and cringe with the nostalgia usually associated with those times but will make you say, “yes even I had those very same thoughts when I was a kid.” In the second part, Tony looks at back at some of those events and when unexpectedly a will bequeaths Adrian’s diary to him, he is forced to look at his break up with Veronica and his relationship with Adrian in a fresh light and come to turns with what had happened then despite his memory’s unwillingness to do so. This quest turns the story into a quasi-suspense novel without letting go of its quasi-philosophical ramblings about re looking at life.
The narration is very conversational and Tony tells his story as if he were orally narrating it to some listeners which is exactly what makes the text engaging. The reader is constantly acknowledged and addresses to and thus we feel drawn into the story and relate to it easily-who doesn’t nostalgically look back at their good times in life, who doesn’t invent memories, who doesn’t read into the past and reasons it out-aren’t we all guilty of that, of pruning the bad parts and remembering only the good aspects, of inventing our life’s story for ourselves? There is therefore a kind of universalism in his pondering about life but without making it stereotypical and without imposing it on the reader.
With many quotable quotes and witty phrases and one liners that may or may not hit you with a profound realisation, The Sense of an Ending is a brisk, powerful and moving tale of the uncertainties of life. The end is completely surprising and revelation of a bitter truth does somehow communicate ‘the sense of an ending’ in a way. Cannot reveal more, would be quite a spoiler and would simply ruin the fun of finding out on your own. All I can say is highly recommended. But do not read it just because it won some fancy prize but because it can say a lot about the vagaries of life-more than those silly philosophical books anyhow and more importantly read it because well what could be more joyful than picking up a book and immersing yourself in it and falling in love with another author’s works?
‘Orlando’ may not be Woolf’s most famous novel but it certainly is her most fun and playful novel. While her other works can be tough to peruse, require a lot of concentration and have been viewed as tedious and heavy reads, ‘Orlando’ is an enjoyable read. It seems as if Woolf was taking a break from all her other ‘heavy’ novels to write something ‘light’ and so she penned Orlando. This however does not entail that the novel is a mere story with nothing in terms of depth and meaning. On the contrary Woolf uses her story to make comments on a number of aspects of her society. First and foremost, the novel was written to underline the issue of how the female sex was denied any rights of inheritance. Her friend and lover, Vita Sackville West, who came from a prestigious lineage was denied the inheritance of her ancestral Knole House on account of her being a woman. Woolf highlights this and several other aspects in her novel.
Orlando is the name of the protagonist of the novel and many critics have asserted that Orlando is modeled after Vita herself who at the end of the story is able to inherit his lands. The novel is truly modernist in its approach as it uses the idea of the fluidity of time which is the main crux of the novel. Modernists were fascinated with deconstructing the notions of time and its linearity. Consequently, ‘Orlando’ spans four centuries with the protagonist living through various time periods. The time periods are also distinctly described in terms of literary periods. The story starts in the Elizabethan Age with Orlando, a man, who owns vast lands and a huge house and has the privilege of gaining an audience with the Queen herself and ends in 1928. In the four centuries, Orlando falls in love with a Russian princess, becomes a successful Ambassador in Constantinople, writes a novel-Oak Tree, gets it published, meets his literary idols in cafes and undergoes one important change (which if revealed can be a spoiler) that Woolf uses to state the ideas of bisexuality and also gets married among other things. For literature fans, the novel is a fun ride through the various ages, like studying the background of English Literature but in a cool way rather than in a the drab manner of reading up a Daiches or Boris Ford volume. It gives a sweeping survey of the literary periods of English literature but also critiques them simultaneously. The quirky character, Nick Greene, is an author but also a pompous critic who Orlando meets in the Elizabethan Age and then in the Victorian Age but his manner of appreciating the older works rather than the contemporary ones does not change over the centuries. For example, in the Elizabethan Age, he mocked Shakespeare and Marlowe while extolling the Greek writers and their works. He termed the latter as ‘great’ and the former as just a shadow of the latter’s greatness. However, in the Victoria Age, he calls the Elizabethan Age as having produced great literature and the Victorian Age as being wishy washy in the literature it produces. Woolf uses Nick Greene cleverly to prick the hallowed literary canon and to show that what constitutes ‘great’ works is rather subjective and fickle.
Apart from contradicting ideas of male inheritance and taking a jibe at literary tradition, Woolf’s ‘Orlando’ is also very English in its essence. The importance of home, one’s roots, one’s land is highlighted in subtle ways. The work that Orlando writes, ‘Oak Tree’ is itself a symbol of that. Moreover, his sense of Englishness comes through when he is ambassador in Constantinople where he adores the foreign and exotic but also longs for English landscapes. The novel does have hues of the English pride and a respect for British imperialism.
Overall, ‘Orlando’ is a cheerful and lively read and even if you have a love-hate relationship with Virginia Woolf or hate her outright, this novel should not be given a miss.