It’s not my first time to write about The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes, and Waterland, by Graham Swift, on this blog. Well, to some extent, it is… because the last time I actually didn’t write about them; I simply extracted a paragraph of each one. Why do these books matter so much to me?
The fact of reading these two books back to back was what happened to me through the choice of my English literature professor.
Both books deal with catastrophes in the past; Waterland deals with a catastrophe, or as a matter of fact a series of catastrophes, that Tom (the narrator) has been imposed to, involuntarily and how he is dealing with them. The Sense of an Ending is about how Tony (the narrator) finds out about a catastrophe that he has caused. Both narrators go through, what I borrow from Julian Barnes, “unrest.” In Waterland, we see how Tom is prosecuted, not in a legal sense, for what he has been subject to; whereas in The Sense of an Ending, we leave Tony at the very moment he comes to face the “bitter truth.” Waterland’s Tom is seeking peace and rest, that’s why he turns to narration and transforms History – what he teaches at school- into Story – what’s meant to liberate, or deliver, us. The Sense of an Ending’s Tony finds no peace, probably because he’s carrying the guilt that Tom, in Waterland, is not shouldering. In both books, we have teachers; Waterland’s teacher, who happens to be the narrator, is the one who walks us through generations of his family and how this family has reclaimed land and then lost it, both literally and figuratively, so that eventually their latest descendent, Tom – the narrator, has had to leave the Fens. The Sense of an Ending’s teacher, Old Joe Hunt, is the figure that gives impulses to Adrian and Tony which will walk them throughout their lives and even during the moments when the narrator is finding out in his Oedipal ransack the harm he has done. Both novels, however, insist on memory’s incompleteness and the extent to which this incompleteness can harm us; both as a phenomenon and a consequence.
I’m going to get back to these novels again. I have three exams to do in five and a half hours!