Tony Webster, the central character and narrator of The Sense of an Ending, has a lot to say about poetry in the novel – more than you’d suspect, from a first reading. At school he is taught by a young English master ‘just down from Cambridge’, Phil Dixon, ‘who liked to use contemporary texts , and would throw out sudden challenges.’ One he throws out is from T.S. Eliot’s ‘Sweeney Agonistes’:
Birth, copulation and death,
That’s all the facts when you come to brass tacks;
Birth, copulation and death.
He asks, ‘Any comments?’ and indeed the whole novel turns out to be (as we realize by the end) a commentary on exactly this theme. Tony’s school years are the mid-1960s, that groundbreaking era of the Penguin anthology The New Poetry and Ted Hughes’ series on BBC Schools’ Radio, Poetry in the Making: indeed, he remembers
how, when we were discussing Ted Hughes’s poetry, he put his head at a donnish slant and murmured, ‘Of course, we’re all wondering what will happen when he runs out of animals.’
Tony loves this line of Phil Dixon’s and later, at university, tries it out on his girlfriend Veronica. She is not impressed. When he admits, ‘It was just something my English master said,’ she replies, ‘Well, now you’re at university we must get you to think for yourself, mustn’t we?’ Trying to get Tony to think for himself is something she will do again, angrily, later in the novel. Her rebuke at his failure to understand the events of the past, the circumstances leading to the long-ago suicide of his school friend Adrian, reverberates backwards and forwards through the novel:
You just don’t get it, do you? You never did, and you never will.
Poetry is something else that Tony doesn’t get. When Phil Dixon sets his class an unseen poem (in the best I.A. Richards tradition: no title, date, or author) and asks Tony’s friend Adrian Finn to say, in simple terms, what the poem is about, Adrian replies confidently,
‘Eros and Thanatos, sir …. Sex and death. Or love and death, if you prefer. The erotic principle, in any case, coming into conflict with the death principle. And what ensues from that conflict. Sir.’
As with the Eliot quotation, this declaration of Adrian’s neatly foreshadows everything the rest of the novel will be about. But Tony doesn’t get it: when Dixon turns to him – ‘Webster, enlighten us further’ – he can only say feebly, ‘I just thought it was about a barn-owl, sir.’
Here Julian Barnes plays a game with the reader. Which poem did Dixon set his class for practical criticism? It sounds as though it should be one by Ted Hughes, but it isn’t. There’s been some anguished discussion about this on the internet, but no one has yet found a poem about a barn-owl that is apparently about sex and death too.
This ‘spot the poem’ game is only a tease. Much more significant is ‘Spot the poet’. There is one poet Barnes never allows Tony to name, but from and about whom he quotes throughout the novel. He refers to him simply as ‘the poet’, suggesting not only that he is attached to this one above all others, but also that we as readers should be able immediately to identify him: we just have to pick up the intertextual echoes for ourselves.
The poet is Philip Larkin.
The first echo comes very early. When Tony is introducing himself and explaining why he needs to return ‘briefly’ to ‘some approximate memories which time has deformed into certainty’ he is reversing the key lines from ‘An Arundel Tomb’. ‘Time has transfigured them into / Untruth’, writes Larkin about the earl and countess lying hand in hand on top of their tomb, betraying the ‘stone fidelity / They hardly meant’. The Sense of an Ending is about the unreliability of memory, the dangers of nostalgia and the fallibility of history; the fact that Tony admits from the word go that his memories are only approximate and that they have been ‘deformed’ into certainty is an admission that he will be an unreliable narrator.
But, this novel reminds us, all narrative is compromised. As Adrian will later put it to their history teacher: ‘We need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us.’
Later, Tony will quote more directly from Larkin. Talking about the patterns and procedures of courtship in the early sixties he describes the sequence of fumblings and trade-offs that went all the way ‘up to what the poet called “a wrangle for a ring”’. The line comes from ‘Annus Mirabilis’ (‘Sexual Intercourse began in 1963 …')
A critical document in the novel is a page from Adrian’s diary. After University, Adrian had briefly become Veronica’s boyfriend but – to Tony’s dismay – had committed suicide not long afterwards. On this page (which Tony does not see until he is in his sixties – divorced, bald, recently retired, living alone) Adrian had written cryptically about ‘accumulation’, the multiplying responsibilities and consequences of relationships. Tony, who is trying to make sense of Adrian’s suicide, his ending, takes a simpler view of life:
We muddle along, we let life happen to us, we gradually build up a store of memories. There is the question of accumulation, but not in the sense that Adrian meant, just the simple adding up and adding on of life. And as the poet pointed out, there is a difference between addition and increase.
What the poet actually says is this:
Why did he think adding meant increase?
To me it was dilution.
This comes from ‘Dockery and Son’ where the speaker is disturbed to discover, at a college reunion, that one of his erstwhile contemporaries, Dockery, has a son already at the college while he, like Larkin himself, is still unmarried, still childless. Later, Barnes makes Tony conclude - lamely and mistakenly; he still does not get it - that Adrian had committed suicide simply because, like Larkin, ‘he was afraid of the pram in the hall’. (This is a quotation not from Larkin but from Cyril Connolly’s Enemies of Promise ,1938: ‘there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall’ – Larkin, however, admired Connolly and quoted this dictum with approval.)
I think ‘Dockery and Son’ is a crucial text for understanding ‘the sense of an ending’ with which Tony wrestles. It’s one of the most unillusioned of Larkin’s poems and a precursor to ‘Aubade’. Although its final lines are never quoted or directly echoed in Barnes’s novel, they speak all too resonantly of Tony’s failure in life:
Life is first boredom, then fear.
Whether or not we use it, it goes,
And leaves what something hidden from us chose,
And age, and then the only end of age.
In a fit of self-reproach Tony asks himself, ‘What did I know of life, I who had lived so carefully?’ He decides that an appropriate epitaph for his gravestone would be ‘Tony Webster – he never got it’. Unlike Larkin, however, Tony did have a child, a grown-up daughter, Susie, who (as he is fond of saying about other people) ‘is not central to this story’. He contrasts her with a brain-damaged adult he has been shown by Veronica and whom he assumes (mistakenly) must have been the child of Veronica and Adrian, and the reason for Adrian’s suicide. In his final homage to Larkin, he says that having a normal, functioning child is the most any parent should ask for: ‘May you be ordinary, as the poet once wished the new-born baby.’ The poem to which he refers is Larkin’s ‘Born Yesterday’, and the baby was Kingsley Amis’s daughter, Sally, born in January 1954.
I was shocked, before Christmas, to read in the TLS that one reviewer had found The Sense of an Ending ‘hilarious’ (Graham Robb, TLS 2.12.11, p.16). Hilarious it isn’t. Tony Webster may be a poor fool, but he isn’t a buffoon. True, he hath ever but slenderly known himself; but what sense he does finally make of life – of his own mortality as well as of Adrian’s suicide - comes from Larkin’s poetry. This much, at least, he gets. Unseen and unidentified, ‘the poet’ is Tony’s touchstone, a critical presence in the novel, ‘central to this story’.
[illustration: photo of Philip Larkin, from the cover of Further Requirements (London: Faber and Faber 2001) and the cover of Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending (London: Jonathan Cape: 2011); cover design by Suzanne Dean.
My new book, Extramural: Literature and Lifelong Learning, is due out in the Spring, published by the Lutterworth Press. You can find details of the book, and read the opening chapters, by clicking here.