Monday, 5 December 2011

Re-reading Julian Barnes (i): Cover Story

There’s an excellent article in last weekend’s Guardian Review. In ‘Cover me beautiful’ Kathryn Hughes celebrates the return of high-quality book design: she starts by congratulating Julian Barnes for paying tribute – in his Booker Prize acceptance speech – to the design and the designer of his novel The Sense of an Ending. She describes the cover of his book as “an elegiac visual riff on dandelion clocks, which darkens at the edge to black, an idea of mourning that then runs over the edges of the pages themselves”.

Hughes argues that publishers have realized they need to be more attentive to the design of traditional books now that e-books have become a serious threat. I don’t want to get into a debate about this: I love books, I love owning them and having them around me, on my shelves, on my desk, in my attic; but I know e-books are the future and in that future I hope there will be room for both.  There are good things you can do with e-books that you can’t with ordinary books – and vice versa. Let’s leave it at that.

Kathryn Hughes is right, though, about the cover of The Sense of an Ending – up to a point. I can’t help thinking that, in describing it as ‘an elegiac visual riff on dandelion clocks’ she has understated the relationship between the book and its cover. In fact, the cover relates specifically to an important but easily overlooked passage in the novel.

Tony, the central character and narrator of the novel, reflects on the idea behind the image of getting under somebody’s skin. He wants to get under the skin of the woman who, forty years ago, had briefly been his girlfriend at university and now has unexpectedly resurfaced to disturb his quiet life. He recalls that his ex-wife, Margaret, used to prepare roast chicken by slipping butter and herbs between the skin and the flesh of the bird. He remembers having admired the skill with which she used to do this, and then adds as an aside: ‘I’ve never tried it myself, then or since; my fingers are too clumsy, and I imagine them ripping the skin.’ Poor, un-self-aware Tony speaks proleptically, and truer than he knows: the book is about how he discovers what damage he caused years and years before, and never realized or even thought about it.

The Sense of an Ending is very much a novel about memory and its perils: Tony refers at the start to ‘some approximate memories which time has deformed into certainty’. This memory of his ex-wife preparing chicken leads to another. Margaret had reminded him of a French variation on this theme where the chicken was prepared by inserting slices of black truffle under the skin, creating a dish known as Chicken in Half-Mourning. The French call it Demi-Deuil. As the pigment from the truffle seeps upwards through the skin, it creates shades of pink, grey, purple and black; and it’s this, subtly but specifically, to which the cover of The Sense of an Ending alludes.

The choice of this apparently passing reference to cookery as the subject of the cover should take every reader back to the place where it occurs in the story (pp.109-10). Less than a page in length, it has been actually framed by Julian Barnes in a way unique in this novel. Tony begins it by breaking off from his narrative to comment:

I said I wanted to get under her skin, didn’t I? It’s an odd expression, and one that always makes me think of Margaret’s way of roasting a chicken.

He ends by reflecting briefly on how these days – never mind half-mourning - we stay in mourning barely long enough to get home from the crematorium after a funeral. Then he breaks off this reverie:

Sorry, that’s a bit off the track. I wanted to get under her skin, that’s what I said, didn’t I? Did I mean what I thought I meant by it, or something else? ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’ – that’s a love song, isn’t it?

The whole novel is in the form of a confession, by a man who has come to realize he has much to confess. But nowhere else in its 150 pages does Tony speak so directly to his reader, even asking for our help in remembering what he is trying to say. Actually, this is a sly piece of indirection on the novelist’s part: he isn’t off the track at all, as the book’s cover reminds us. Nor is he about to answer his own question, ‘Did I mean what I thought I meant by it, or something else?’ He leaves that to us, in this way making us uncomfortably complicit in his ‘meditation on memory and regret’ (the Guardian Review again) as if we know the story as well, or better, than he does. Indeed, after re-reading this remarkably allusive novel, I’ve concluded that the line best summing up Julian Barnes’s sense of the relationship between narrator and reader is Baudelaire’s:

Vous, hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère!

[photo: Guardian Review (Saturday 3 December 2011) and Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending (London: Jonathan Cape, 2011). Cover design by Suzanne Dean.


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  2. The first thing that came to mind as I read through this blog was the expression ‘cooking the books’, which has nothing to do with literary appreciation but with bad accountancy. I found this account of Barne’s novel thoroughly enlightening and will now be able to re-read it with even further insight than that intended by the author. I ordered my copy online through and received it through the post a few days later. Not quite an e-book, but then I now own a Kindle and have since discovered that I could have waited to buy the book to read using that, in which case it would have been in my possession within a matter of minutes. I find my Kindle very handy, which sounds like an attempt at a bad pun, but it’s true that I can now have as many books about my person as it will hold, which I understand goes into over three thousand. I used to have about five books in my briefcase to read on the bus and during my lunch half-hour when I worked as a young man in Nottingham. A budding bookworm. What the French call un rat de bibliothèque. Owning an e-reader has come as a relief in a sense in that there simply is no room on my bookshelves and the floor of my study is all the space available for any new ones. But I make an exception for Julian Barnes’ novel. It is a delight to own and to handle. Thanks to the flyleaf though. Once that’s removed it becomes an ordinary book, with a plain black cover, although the pages are black-edged. So once that flyleaf is worn and tattered and gone to where all flyleaves eventually go, there’ll only be the novel left. Which will be worth re-reading in years to come, even on an e-reader.