Over the course of the next three blog posts, I discuss the role of allusion – the reference to one text from within another – in Julian Barnes’ Man Booker Prize winning novel, The Sense of an Ending.
The Sense of an Ending is a novel that depends upon documents, or texts – its own and others – to create meaning and effect. Its ‘own’ documents are letters, diaries and emails that appear within the text to help create the plot, chart the unfolding of a life, and bring together two disparate characters through whom we come to understand more about how another lived and died. The ‘other’ documents are those texts to which it refers, its allusions – other literary works, including criticism – to create a resonance beyond its pages. The analysis contains spoilers.
My three areas of focus show different levels of sophistication in the use of allusion in the novel. In order, I discuss:
- the simple allusion, as a brief reference to another author, which is not discussed in detail in the novel
- the complex allusion, where I focus on novel’s interaction with the work of poet Philip Larkin, and particular the motifs of loss, accumulation, and age
- the resonant allusion, where no detailed specific reference is made to another text but which occurs when the ideas of another text illuminate, reflect or chime with such resonance that we are compelled to read them alongside one another. In this case, that text is one that shares its name, Frank Kermode’s seminal critical work, The Sense of an Ending.
The novel is not highly allusive in the way that T S Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ is; but it does use a few, carefully positioned texts that we can interpret as important and which tell us something about the novel. It is those allusions that are my interest here.
Some allusions are more easily discovered than others and when found, there is a range of complexity in terms of their meaning and effect. But here it’s worth remembering that it would be equally natural to miss or ignore such an allusion, too: the novel is self-standing, self-contained: and what I might find allusive because of my reading and experience might not be the same as what you think is important.
I start here with a ‘simple’ example of literary allusion, one where the name of an author appears in the text and we are invited to interpret what it means.
Part One: Simple allusion – judging a reader by the book they’re reading
The appearance of a book title or author’s name in a novel functions in an obvious sense to reveal something about their reader: as we judge people by the clothes they wear, the food they eat and the cars they drive, the book one reads seems to provide an equally penetrating insight, perhaps even more so. When Antony meets Veronica in the café, he asks:
What are you reading?
She turned the cover of her paperback towards me. Something by Stefan Zweig.
How we interpret the significance of this inclusion, in short, what we take the ‘cultural value’ of Zweig to be in this specific context, depends on how much we know about Zweig. So, who is Stefan Zweig and what does including a non-specific title mean? This is what Wikipedia says about him:
Stefan Zweig (November 28, 1881 – February 23, 1942) was an Austrian novelist, playwright, journalist and biographer. At the height of his literary career, in the 1920s and 1930s, he was one of the most famous writers in the world.
I think from this phrase we might think ‘he was one of the most famous writers in the world’ is most telling. I wonder how many people would have heard of Zweig, let alone read him. There is more on his reputation here:
Zweig was a very prominent writer in the 1920s and 1930s, and befriended Arthur Schnitzler and Sigmund Freud. He was extremely popular in the USA, South America and Europe, and remains so in continental Europe; however, he was largely ignored by the British public, and his fame in America has since dwindled. Since the 1990s there has been an effort on the part of several publishers (notably Pushkin Press and New York Review of Books) to get Zweig back into print in English. Zweig is best known for his novellas […], novels […] and biographies
As I’ve said, if we know nothing, then the allusion will mean little to us. If we know that he was once a well-known writer but that his reputation had suffered over the years we might reflect on how this relates to Veronica, who is reading him, and reinforce the book’s themes in general, such as the effects of time passing and the waning of reputation.
However, looking more closely, we find that he wrote a novel called Letter from an Unknown Woman. Wikipedia says of it: “it tells the story of an author who, while reading a letter written by a woman he does not remember, gets glimpses into her life story.”
Clearly, this has some resonance for The Sense of an Ending: Veronica, up until now, is more or less unknown to Antony, and how much he knows about her is a point upon which the plot hinges. Veronica may be reading a book that knowingly (for Barnes and his readers) echo her and Antony’s relationship. We can’t be sure, because all we know is that it is ‘something’ by Zweig, as far as Antony reveals. Such a paucity of information may reveal either an indifference, ignorance or rejection of Zweig by Antony – we cannot be sure. But it does introduce the idea that the value of the author’s name is seen through Antony’s perspective: therefore we need to make an imaginative leap if we are to interpret it through his eyes. Overall, the allusion is inconclusive in this respect, since we are uncertain as to what it means for Antony. It is equally significant that Veronica does not tell Antony what the novel is called or who it’s by, or offer comment or evaluation – he is left, like us, to interpret it without further information. Overall, it is a stark, brief and limited allusion which refuses to reveal a great deal whilst tantalising suggesting some interesting connections outside of the novel.
Despite the potential complexity of how we interpret what referring to Zweig means, I call it a simple example of literary allusion because Barnes does not discuss the reference in detail, nor does it illuminate the novel with any sophistication. It does not add a layer of complexity in terms of how it is expressed; rather, it is a single point of reference to another work amongst many others, implicit or explicit.
That is not to say it doesn’t have resonance for the reader, depending on how much they know about Zweig, his life and work. Rather, when we compare it to the other kinds of literary allusion in The Sense of an Ending, we can see that it lacks the depth and complexity by comparison. In a sense, reading Zweig is rather like an adjective, albeit a loaded one: it has a similar density to writing that Veronica was wearing (say) a ‘shabby’ coat, or curled her lip when she spoke (neither of which are true but are used for illustration).
It is to such another, more sophisticated example of allusion that I turn in the next part. Here, I will be looking at focussing on how the novel alludes to the work of the poet Philip Larkin, and especially the notion that accumulation – of a lover, a job, a car and a house – need not mean a positive addition to one’s life.