I am always behind when it comes to reading – it’s part of my ‘problem’, buying too many books and developing a huge backlog – admittedly with Barnes’ 150 pager there is less excuse than usual, but regardless, I have finally found the time to read it. The first thing that struck me about it was the sheer beauty of it, it is a gorgeous book. The cover design is at once ethereal and familiar in its portrayal of time and fragmentation; the gradation of colour is appropriate to the nuance of memory about which the book is structured. The resurgence of book design has been much discussed and well-documented with a particularly insightful and relevant article from Kathryn Hughes at The Guardian here.
I have always liked the way Barnes writes and this is no exception, it has been recorded as a worthy winner of the 2011 Man Booker and I am inclined to agree that it is. The opening in particular strikes me as masterful in its construction, both as a reflection of the plot and as a broader illustration of the plot’s thematic concerns: memory and experience as mutable, in our experience of art as much in our experience of life and other people. It engenders a perspective that is permanent flux: as life is volatile and undpredictable, so our internal record of events reflects that, we “remember, in no particular order…”
History both as an academic discipline and as a mechanism of collective memory offers a useful metaphor here and it is one that Barnes draws upon throughout the text: “the central problem of history” identified by the precocious and ill-fated Adrian correlates with that of personal memory. The colouration of experience by experience threads through the recollections of the narrator and acts a sort of structuring pivot about which the events of the story and “the question of subjective versus objective interpretation” become inextricably entwined. The text is patterned too with phrases like, ‘back then’ that focus the narrative, structured in two distinct parts, as divergent retellings of the past; neither one more reliable than the other.
The nuances of individual perception and memory permeate the language and the result is a beautifully crafted work that offers, perhaps unexpectedly a sense of completion, quite literally, an ending.
The problem for me is the voice. Yes, it is arresting; it gently takes you by the lapels for the duration before popping you down, dusting you off and humbly allowing you to continue on your way. It also grates: the world weary tone, ineffable politesse and sighing self-knowledge, quite frankly got on my nerves by the time I had finished it. That is why, although I enjoyed elements of it immensely and have a great respect for Barnes’ writing, I was secretly relieved that it was only 150 pages…