“The Sense of an Ending” by Julian Barnes & “The Reader” by Bernard Schlink

Strange how things fit together by chance. I read these two back to back with no thought of connections. Both are short novels, novellas, intellectually “about” “history”, and written by male narrators each looking back over a relationship with a woman in his distant past. In both the narrator has been (unnecessarily, in my view: why can’t these character-types get over it?) messed up for the rest of his life. But of course they’re very different: the Barnesy girl is middle-class English, whose problem is just being a bit weird and having a sneering brother; the German girl is a convicted war-criminal. And the points of both novels couldn’t be more different: Julian’s is a Lolita-like exposé of a narrator (but Julian’s finds out what a dick he’s been), seen through the filter of a remembered schoolboy discussion on the nature of history and how forgettable and subjective it can be – hence the exposé when he realises how all his life he’d misinterpreted his own history. The book seems to be leading to the narrator’s suicide (or at least, if Julian wouldn’t be happy handling a post-mortem narrator), the attempt, but we don’t get there: things are more prosaic. Bernard’s is one of those German books contemplating the Nazis, and in particular the Holocaust, so is about history in another sense. I don’t think it says anything particularly interesting about this, but I’m not German. What is good is the way the image of the crime the woman is convicted of – not unlocking a burning church containing Jewish prisoners – serves to illustrate the perceived predicament of the German people. And what is best is the revelation, at the book’s end, of the woman’s 18 years in prison coming to terms with what she had done, before killing herself on the eve of release. Barnes, on the other hand, gives us merely the sense of an ending.

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