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Looking Back in Remorse,
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Julian Barnes' very short new novel, currently nominated for the Man Booker Prize, is by no means perfect -- but it is very much authentic, and that counts for a lot with me. As its title suggests, it is written by a man approaching 70, like Barnes himself, looking back on his youth and re-evaluating. This may be a limitation for younger readers, but it is what one does around that age, and Barnes handles it with impressive honesty. As an Englishman of very similar background myself, and only a year or two older, I found the book uncannily full of echoes from my own life, and no doubt those of many others: the group of friends in high-school who go their separate ways, the strange limbo of early sixties sex, a friend's suicide, the mystery of a never quite forgotten first girlfriend. I have not felt so much part of a novel since reading Ian McEwan's ON CHESIL BEACH; this may bias my review, but it also speaks to a depth of personal connection in the author's mind too. This makes the book, short though it is, a vast improvement on Barnes' recent set of short stories, PULSE, and almost as good as THE LEMON TABLE, the wonderful collection that preceded it.
Tony Webster is a man in his later sixties, divorced, the father of a grown daughter, and comfortably retired. Then a letter arrives that sends him back in memory to his high-school days and his friendship with Adrian Finn, a brilliant student clearly destined for great things. While Adrian is indeed achieving academic success at Cambridge, Tony pursues his studies at a provincial university, devoting as much time to a mostly-unconsummated relationship with Veronica Ford, his girlfriend from a rather more upscale family. Then, when Tony is visiting in America, Adrian dies. There seems no mystery about it at the time, but when Tony is forced to reconsider after a gap of forty-some years, his search becomes a moral calculus, weighing the value of that one life against what he's made of his own, settling for an undistinguished career and marriage, calling it comfort but really meaning cowardice.
The opening sections of the novel have strong similarities to Alan Bennett's play THE HISTORY BOYS, and the question of what constitutes history runs all through the book. The teenage Tony quotes Churchill's aphorism that "History is written by the victors," but his teacher counters that "it is also the self-delusion of the defeated." As Tony looks back on his life, different and sometimes surprising versions of the truth will emerge, and the question of winners and losers will by no means be so clear. This is the intellectual mystery of the book, and I found it fascinating. But you cannot write a novel on philosophical and literary reflections alone; there need also be events, shifts of direction, surprise revelations. Here I think Barnes falls short. The disclosures in the last section of the story, pulled like rabbits out of the hat, are in my opinion inadequately prepared in the first half. So while Barnes ties up the mysteries with the neatness of a PD James or Agatha Christie, he leaves Tony's personal calculus disappointingly open-ended.
I guess I'll just have to work out my own past in my own way!