12/21/2011 06:30 pm ET | Updated Feb 20, 2012

Julian Barnes, E.M. Forster, and the Message of the Unreliable Narrator

In the New York Times Sunday Book Review of December 18th, Geoff Dyer bemoans this year's Man Booker Prize winner, The Sense of an Ending, written by Julian Barnes, as an averagely-written novel which carries on (or plods on) with what has become a particular English ("nationalized") mode of writing: the narrator moves in circles around the main event, slowly revealing -- or not -- the devastating truth underlying the complicated layers of facts and non-facts surrounding said event. Dyer cites back to The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford as an example of such plot machinations and with less regard, mentions the works of Kazuo Ishiguro. But if you go even further back, just a bit, there is Howards End by E.M. Forster, a novel in which the unreliability of communications between characters provides the puzzle, the eventual solution, and, most importantly, the message.

For me, it was not the puzzle itself (why? who? when? where?) and its solution (the mother with the boyfriend in Chislehurst 40 years ago) that makes or breaks The Sense of an Ending, but rather Barnes' use of an unreliable narrator in order to understand the boundaries, limitations, and possibilities of human relationships. Barnes is continuing an exploration found in his other works; his previous novels and essays, and his memoir, Nothing to Be Frightened Of, present the parameters and aspirations of the relationships we humans enjoy (or not) with our fellow beings and also examine what is perhaps the most important relationship of all, the one we have with ourselves.

In The Sense of an Ending, Barnes examines one man's relationships through the lens of memory. Anthony Webster is in his 60s, reminiscing about chums from school and later university, and about the fraught affair he had with a girl, Veronica. When he receives an unexpected legacy from Veronica's mother, Tony faces truths about his own history and the history of his friends that upend his long-held beliefs about his own role in those relationships and make him question how he has lived -- "peaceably" -- his life. The old adage "with age comes wisdom," is vivisected to a whole new meaning. Tony must re-learn the entire history of an event he had long assumed he understood. Long past the age at which he thought change was possible, Tony finds himself off-kilter and "peaceable" no more.

Barnes is great at drawing out the fears we all face as we mature. As Tony laments to himself, "Sometimes I think the purpose of life is to reconcile us to its eventual loss by wearing us down, by proving, however long it takes, that life isn't all its cracked up to be." I am still young enough (at least at heart) to rebel strongly against that statement: life is a gift (as one of the characters points out, not one we asked for, but nevertheless, a gift) and one filled (for most of us with the time to read Julian Barnes) with moments of beauty and joy, no matter what our age. Even Tony, after realizing he has misunderstood so much, still holds tight to treasured memories: the sight of Veronica dancing, the rising of the river Severn against the tide at midnight, a slight wave from Veronica's mother.

As sharply as Barnes dissects the fears of maturity, he is just as astute, as well as very funny, in reminding us of the fears of youth: "This was another one of our fears: that Life wouldn't turn out to be like Literature. Look at our parents -- were they the stuff of literature?" Depends upon the literature...

In addition to being a vivisection of a life, The Sense of an Ending is a dissection of memory, with Barnes showing real insight into how memory does (or does not) work. For Tony, memory turns out to be a hollowing out of facts he'd rather forget, and a stuffing in of how he wants to remember the past. How he has understood himself -- the relationship he has had with himself -- for over 40 years is based on false or incomplete memories, and Tony must now define himself against the new information. Not an easy task, at any age.

The Sense of an Ending is in some ways a continuation of the story set forth in E.M. Forster's Howards End. From Howards End comes the wonderful line, "Only connect," Forster's plea of connection and communication between humans across class and gender lines. The Sense of an Ending is the next chapter of Forster's book, decades down the line, when the less-than-posh classes are being educated and acclimated to better living, and yet the divides of class still exist, confounding understanding and allowing for hateful exchanges based on accumulation of status, or the reckless rejection of it.

The plea of "only connect" is for a true connection -- sympathy and empathy -- between two parties and perhaps in The Sense of an Ending, one such relationship exists. Unfortunately, it is the one relationship about which we know very little; we do know there was happiness at the end, and with that hint, I would like to think connection was found. But in all other relationships of the novel, where there is sympathy, there is little empathy, and where there is empathy, sympathy is scarce. For Tony, the realization that he has never really understood anything relating to Veronica may just lead him to finally be able to form a connection with her of both understanding and acceptance. But for Veronica, it may all be too little, way too late.

Which brings me back to Dyer's condemnation of the unreliable narrator. By going past The Good Soldier to Howards End, Dyer might have found another motivation for the device of restraint, withholding, and obfuscation -- and a greater tolerance and even admiration for the message it seeks to convey. For what does an unreliable narrator (incomplete communication) tell us about ourselves? That we are unable to understand ourselves (much less anybody else) on our own, and it is only through sympathetic and empathetic communication with others -- the "only connect" of Howard's End -- that we gain insight into the meaning of life, and the purpose of our relationships. Which is, after all, the purpose and meaning of great literature: to connect not only the dots, but ourselves with others.