Friday, July 14, 2017

LAST YEARS OF NIKOLAI GOGOL, excerpt from novel by U.R. Bowie, "GOGOL'S HEAD"

Biographical Ten

Final Flight of the Buffleheaded Goo-Goo Bird

The preacher in Gogol was now in total control, the sanctimonious religious fanatic. Well-meaning friends, those like Aksakov, who cherished the great fiction he had written, tried to rein him in. But it was far too late. He went on travelling around Europe, foot firmly implanted on the neck of his own best creativity, nursing his mad plan for edifying all of mankind. He stayed with Vasily Zhukovsky and his family repeatedly, in various parts of Germany. The great poet spent a lot of time with Gogol over the years; he must have had some insights into Gogol’s character. But Zhukovsky never wrote a memoir of Gogol. Other than a few scattered notes in reminiscences Gogol’s other “friends” never did either: Pletnyov, Vjazemsky, Sheviryov, Khomyakov, Pogodin, Smirnova, the Vielgorskies. The main exception is Aksakov.

Why were they so reluctant to write about the man who was generally recognized for years as Pushkin’s successor, the greatest creative writer that the land of Rus had to offer? Probably because he mystified them. They could not reconcile the man with the great works because the two were not reconcilable. The Gogol they saw in their presence was a man of highly limited vision.

“While he was endowed with a superhuman power of creative imagination (in which in the world’s literature he has had equals but certainly no superior), his understanding was strikingly inadequate to his genius. His ideas were those of his provincial home, of his simple, childish mother, modified only by an equally primitive romantic cult of beauty and of art, imbibed during the first years of his literary career” (D.S. Mirsky).

Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends, which Gogol termed his “only sane book,” was published in January, 1847, and it turned out to be a thoroughly insane book. There is an air of derangement about the text from the start, beginning in the preface, in which Gogol mentions that God has brought him back from the brink of death, and he now deems it necessary to enlighten each and all about certain matters sacred to God. This is followed by a Will and Testament, beginning with instructions not to bury his body until it showed clear signs of decomposition, inasmuch as there had been times when he went into a condition of comatose numbness, when his heart stopped beating and no pulse could be detected.


Postage Stamp Commemorating Publication of "The Overcoat" in 1842

The diver, the seeker for pearls, the man who prefers the monsters of the deep to the sunshades on the beach, will find in “The Overcoat” shadows linking our state of existence to those other states and modes that we dimly apprehend in our rare moments of irrational perception.

                                            … Vladimir Nabokov

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

GOGOL LOVES NOSES excerpt from U.R. Bowie novel, "GOGOL'S HEAD"

In March, 1837, Gogol moved on to Rome and immediately fell in love with the place. Rome remained with him an obsession for many years. Here is an excerpt from a letter linking Gogol’s nose motif in his writings and life to the beloved city: 

“What a spring! Lord God, what a spring! . . . . What air! Inhale deeply through your nose and you feel as if no less than seven hundred angels had come flying up your nasal nostrils. An amazing spring it is! I can’t get enough of admiring it. All of Rome is strewn these days with roses . . . . Believe me that frequently I feel the frenzied desire to turn into nothing but a nose, so that there would be nothing more of me—no eyes, no hands, no feet—just one gigantic nose, with nostrils as big as good-sized buckets, so that I could draw into my insides the maximum volume of aromas and of spring” 
(letter to Marya Balabina, April, 1838, with a heading that reads, “Rome. The month of April. Year 2588th since the founding of the city”).

Note the pleonasm in the phrase “nasal nostrils (носовые ноздри),” as if to suggest that there were other bodily nostrils in addition to the nasal ones. Such “errors” are typical of Gogol’s style, which, even in his best fiction, often is weirdly ragged, nonstandard. A famous example of another such pleonasm is a passage describing “Russian mouzhiks” at the beginning of Dead Souls, as if there were mouzhiks (Russian peasants) in countries other than Russia.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Cover art and front matter for new novel, "GOGOL'S HEAD," by U.R. Bowie



The Misadventures of a Purloined Skull

A Gogolian Novel
(With Gogolian Biography Appended)

U.R. Bowie
Series: The Collected Works of U.R. Bowie, Volume Eleven
Ogee Zakamora Publications, 2017

Copyright © 2017 by Robert Lee Bowie
All Rights Reserved
ISBN-13: 978-1548244149
ISBN-10: 1548244147

Front Cover Illustration:
N.A. Andreev, Medallion on Enclosure
of Nikolai Gogol’s Grave
(Danilov Monastery, Moscow, 1909)

Cover Design by Daniel Hime

Parts of this book have been workshopped through Gainesville Poets and Writers. Special thanks to my publicist Daniel Hime, who created the beautiful cover design. Also I am grateful to my copy editor D. C. Williams, and to my editor and publisher O.G. Zakamora. Once again Sergei Stadnik has helped me with proofreading the Cyrillic passages and refining my style in Russian. Благодарю!

                      NOTE ON CALENDARS
During the lifetime of Nikolai Gogol, Russia still operated according to the old Julian calendar, which, in the nineteenth century was twelve days behind the Gregorian calendar, then widely adopted in the countries of Western Europe. The differences can make for confusion. For example, Gogol’s friend, the poet Nikolai Yazykov, died in two different years: in December of 1846 by the Julian calendar, but in January, 1847 by the Gregorian. At the time of Lenin’s Socialist Revolution in 1917 Russia still ran on Julian dates, and, as a result, what the Soviets always referred to as “The Great October Revolution” took place in November.
Gogol, of course, spent much of his later life abroad, living by the Gregorian calendar. In the text of this book dates are given mostly by  Gregorian. In instances when the Julian calendar date is used, the initials OS (for Old Style) appear in parentheses.




In Lieu of an Introduction                                                                                                                                            
Biographical One: Freak Shows (Ukraine, 1822)                                                                  
Chapter One: The Exhumation                                                                                                                  
Biographical Two: Off to Meet Pushkin (St. Petersburg, Winter, 1829)          
Biographical Three: The Hans Fiasco, First Flight (May, 1829)                       
Chapter Two: Meet Adrian Nule                                                                                                               
Biographical Four: The Scrivener/Writer (St. Petersburg, 1829-1831) 
Chapter Three: Shoes Run Amuck                                                                                                                              
Biographical Five: Good Times (St. Petersburg, Moscow,1831-1834)  
Chapter Four: How It Began with Nule                                                                                                  Biographical Six: Performing (1835-1836)                                                                                            Chapter Five: More Skullduggery                                                                                                                               
Biographical Seven: Wandering, Borrowing Money (1836-1839)   
Chapter Six: Akaky Goes Out Partying                                                                                                      
Biographical Eight: In Search of A Living Soul (1839-1842)                                               
The Three-Handed (Moscow, February, 1842)                                                                    
Buttons (Bad Gastein, Austria, early October, 1842)                                                           
Chapter Seven: The Politburo and the Skull                                                                                          
Biographical Nine: Floundering on, Petering out (1842-1845)                         
Chapter Eight: Nule’s Head Maunders On                                                                                            
Biographical Ten: Final Flight of the Buffleheaded Goo-Goo Bird 
Dear Eyes Gone (Moscow, February, 1852)                                                                                         
Chapter Nine: An Eye for an Eye at the Hands of the Head                                             
In Lieu of a Conclusion: Masafuera                                                                                                            

If mere creative force is to be the standard of valuation, Gogol is the greatest of Russian writers. In this respect he need hardly fear comparison with Shakespeare, and can boldly stand by the side of Rabelais. Neither Pushkin nor Tolstoy possessed anything like that volcano of imaginative creativeness.
                                                               … D.S. Mirsky

Nobody can ever imagine what Gogol was really like. From beginning to end everything about him is incomprehensible. The individual features are blurred, inchoate—they refuse to add up to anything.
                                                                … Anna Akhmatova

What are you like? As a person you are secretive, egotistical, arrogant, and mistrustful, a man who sacrifices everything for fame. As a friend what are you like? But then, do you really have any friends?
                                       … Pletnyov letter to Gogol, October, 1844

Дорога, дорогадорогая дорогадорога мне дороже всего (The road, the road—the dear road—dearest of all to me is the road).
                                      … Gogol letter to Pogodin, October, 1840

The diver, the seeker for pearls, the man who prefers the monsters of the deep to the sunshades on the beach, will find in “The Overcoat” shadows linking our state of existence to those other states and modes that we dimly apprehend in our rare moments of irrational perception.

                                                           … Vladimir Nabokov

Вместо Предисловия
In Lieu of an Introduction

This is the story of a head, and the story of the man who lost his head, and the story of what happened to the lost head. We begin with background on the man. In the process of telling the story of the purloined head, we tell—in lieu of a biography—a truncated version of the life of the man. We cut through all the lies and establish the truth.
                                                                        Adrian Lee Nule, ABD
                                                                        Madison, Wisconsin,
                                                                        March 20, 2015

Monday, July 10, 2017


Icon of the Three-Handed, St. Nicholas Cathedral, St. Petersburg

Троеручица (The Three-Handed)

Moscow, February, 1842

Ekaterina Mikhailovna, sister of the poet Nikolai Mikhailovich Yazykov, was no Russian beauty, but there was an aura of beatitude about her. She was only five years old when her father died. After that she grew up under the sole influence of her pious mother. She and her mother worshipped together, read through the long list of morning and evening prayers. They kept the fasts with utter diligence and spent hours every week bowing down before the icons of Eastern Orthodoxy: the Mother of God of Vladimir, the Three-Handed Theotokos, the healer St. Panteleimon.

As a small girl Katya Yazykova would read aloud, drunk with the sound of her own voice, of saints and martyrs and holy fools, who, despising all that was crass and earthly, embraced the ethereal, who lived in hovels out in the desert, mortifying their corrupt flesh with its passions and lusts. At age nine she wept for months on end, praying and keening, hoping to attain to “the gift of tears.” At ten she went on an extended fast, eating little but bread and water for forty days. This feat of zealotry alarmed even her mother, but the little girl said, “No, it’s all right, Mama. I want to fast my way through to a mantic dream; I hope to speak with the Holy Mother herself.”

It is not known whether Katya was ever vouchsafed to see the Mother of God in her dreams, but she seemed destined for a nunnery, at least until she met the renowned Slavophile philosopher and poet, Aleksei Khomyakov. After their marriage, in 1836, when she was nineteen, her life was centered largely on family and children, although the ideal of the fleshless existence never lost its appeal.

Ekaterina Mikhailovna became hostess for weekly gatherings of intellectuals and literary figures at the Khomyakov mansion in Moscow. Those who attended the meetings were like-minded Slavophiles, firm believers in Eastern Orthodoxy and the holy mission of Russia. Among them was the comic writer Nikolai Gogol, who had first met Ekaterina Mikhailovna and her husband through her brother, one of his closest friends.

On those brisk wintry evenings with the pallid yellow of streetlamps flickering on white frost, Gogol would come to call on the Khomyakovs. The famous author, thirty-three years old that winter, was short in stature, with a long pointed nose, a slender build and blond hair. He would smile at his hosts, toss off a few good-natured remarks, then walk across the drawing room with that peculiar rapid, herky-jerky gait of his. Standing in a corner, wearing his pale-blue vest and trousers of a mauve hue, he reminded one guest of the kind of stork you see in the Ukraine—perched on one leg high up on a roof, with a strangely pensive demeanor.

In Gogol’s personality there was something evasive, forced and constrained. He often appeared to be putting on an act, trying to make people laugh; no one ever seemed to know the real Gogol. Early in his career the literary luminaries of the day (Pushkin, Pletnyov) underestimated him, looked upon him as a figure of fun. The poet Zhukovsky fondly called him by a silly nickname, “Gogolyok.” Especially in the last ten years of his life his nerves were in perpetual disarray. But with her, with Ekaterina Mikhailovna, Gogol was almost natural.

Whenever he arrived he was inevitably drawn to her. Was the attraction sensual in any way? Hardly. In the whole of his solitary life Gogol apparently never lusted for women. What he loved in her was her aura of gentle piety. They would sit together in a corner, drinking tea, speaking in low voices. Gogol showed her little of the raucous, hilarious side of himself, the Gogol who could have people literally crawling on all fours, overcome with laughter. He never told her the off-color stories he loved to tell, most certainly never indulged his bent for scatology. With her he relaxed, he gazed into her lambent grey eyes. Pulled gently into the quiescence that she exuded, he bathed in its soft glow. Like her, he had been raised in Orthodox Christianity, and the longer he lived the more his religion took precedence over everything else.

The conversation tonight, as almost always, was one-sided. Gogol did the talking, while she listened to him, responded with her luminous eyes, her soft smile.
            “You know, for years I’ve been planning a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, to pray at the sepulchre of Jesus Christ, Our Lord.”
No answer. Just the smile, the light in her grey eyes. She looked at him, taking him in without judging him. “Judge not” (Не судите) were two words she repeated incessantly, silently to herself. Her mother had taught her to do that. Gogol’s long blond hair fell straight down from the temples almost to his shoulders, forming parentheses around his gaunt face. His eyes were small and brown; they would flash occasionally with merriment. His lips were soft, puffy beneath his clipped mustache, and the nose was bird-like. Now the mouth was moving again, and she watched it form words.

“I’ll go there for sure. Some day. Just now I don’t have the energy. My bowels are giving me fits again. Did I ever tell you that I was once examined by the best doctors of Paris, and they discovered that my stomach was upside down?”
He smiled wanly when he told her that, and, as so often with Gogol, she could not be sure if he was joking or in dead earnest.
            “I think you mentioned that to my brother,” she replied, unsmiling, touching his wrist with her hand.
            Silence. She was reciting the Jesus Prayer in her mind: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, pray for me, a sinner.”
            “What are you thinking?” he asked her.
            “Nothing. I’m listening to what you say. I love your voice.”
            That dreamy expression on her face, the very look of her calmed his soul.
            “Maybe we could all go together—to Jerusalem—you and your husband, and your brother Nikolai. Would you like that?”
            (Smiling) “I think it’s a marvelous idea.”
            “Who on earth do I love more than you and Nikolai? No one. Some of my happiest memories consist of just his presence in my life. The time we’ve spent traveling together in Europe, or taking the waters. I treasure the memory of those moments.”
            “My brother loves being with you as well. He’s been quite ill you know, for some time, but you always cheer him up.”
            “I pray for him. Every day. I know that all will be well, for the Lord is merciful.”
She nodded but did not answer. He looked in her eyes again, then recalled a line from Nikolai Yazykov’s poetry and said it aloud, still gazing in her eyes and smiling: “Милы очи ваши ясны (Sweet they are, your clear pure eyes).”

STEALING GOGOL'S SHOES, excerpt from U.R. Bowie novel, "GOGOL'S HEAD"

Chapter Three: Shoes Run Amuck

Башмаки вдребезги


Шаша в восторге
(Shasha Exultant)

Once it had been the resplendent Danilov Monastery, also known in English as the St. Daniel Monastery, founded in Moscow in the thirteenth century. When our story begins it was still called the Danilov Monastery, but there were no monks any more, no игумен (father superior)—just buildings in bad repair and a cemetery in desuetude. The monastery had been closed the year before; most of the monks were shot. On the evening of June 26, 1931, the custodian of the Danilov Monastery, Soviet factotum Aleksandr Khromov—a pudgy middle-aged bachelor with a big wart under one nostril, a man everyone called “Shasha”—sat in his Moscow flat near Sokolniki Park. Sat wrapped in exultation.

Why so wrapped? Because at the cemetery located on the monastery grounds they had dug all day long, and, had, finally, disinterred, among others, one of the great jewels of Russian literature, Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol. Dug his coffin up and even opened that coffin and looked upon the remains, pillaged them, and now Shasha Khromov was drinking vodka (Pshenichnaja brand), sitting around the small kitchen table with two of his regular drinking buddies, Tolik Bashmachkin and Zhenka [Last Name Lost]. He was toasting the beautifully preserved shoes that were perched on the wide windowsill next to a stuffed bird (a magpie). Gogol’s shoes.

--Today my luck has finally changed (said Shasha). These shoes will make me rich and famous. Even happy!
--Well, that’s a lot to assume (said dubious Zhenka Last Name Lost). What, after all, makes for true happiness?
He put on a plaintive look, sniffed at a hunk of black bread and stuffed it in his mouth.

Zhenka was a scruffy man of thirty-five, with a left eye that looked straight at you and a right eye that kept its own counsel. His friend Tolik, also thirty-five, resembled Zhenka, except that he was tall instead of short, and his right eye was the one that looked straight ahead.
Zhenka cast a sideways glance at the nineteenth-century style of the high-topped shoes, at the spot where a piece of worn leather was bent back from one of the soles. That spronged-out piece reminded him of an old man’s senescent tongue—sticking itself out at him.
--That this will make you happy is a maybe so and a maybe no (said Tolik Bashmachkin), averting his gaze from the buttons on the shoes. Those blue buttons were round and gleaming, like eyes.
--Kind of reminds me of my grandpa (said Zhenka). When I was lazing around the house, he’d look over at me and say, ‘Not worth a soaked boot sole; you twist it and it bends.’
--What do we have up to now in our little museum next to the cemetery (said upbeat Shasha Khromov)? We’ve got a few old icons, a few relics of saints, things left over from when there was a God. Who’s interested in looking at outmoded stuff like that? Nobody.
--This is the Soviet Union (said Zhenka proudly). We’re building Utopian Socialism, and God is superfluous!
--I’ll drink to that (said Shasha, raising his shot glass). To the God that never was, and is not now neither.
--To Comrade Stalin (said Tolik, raising his), who kicked God and all his saints off the ship of modernity.
--Down with God and up with the Revolution (said Zhenka).

They tossed off their shots; Shasha refilled the dram glasses.
--What sort of relics do you have there, in your museum (asked Zhenka)?
--We’ve got a fingernail from the left hand of St. Panteleimon the All-Merciful. Plus a piece of stone that was taken from a boulder standing near the holy sepulcher of John the Baptist.
--Was that in Jerusalem (asked Zhenka)?
--Can’t remember. I believe it was the place of the first finding of the head.
--The what?
--All that church folklore is illegal now, so best not to speak of it. Anyway, way back when, you may recall, they cut off John the Baptist’s head and gave it to some dancing girl. Then, later, it disappeared a time or two. For centuries each time. Whenever they found the head again, well, they made that day a church holiday.
--Gruesome. What was the holiday called?
--Something like ‘The First (or Second, or Third) Finding of the Head of the Forerunner.’ You weren’t allowed to eat watermelon on that day. Or anything round.
--Crazy stuff (said Tolik). He shrugged his shoulders, by way of removing the tingle that ran up his spine and centered itself at the base of his neck.
--We’re building Socialism now (said Zhenka proudly). Or Communism, one.
He tossed down his vodka, this time without a toast.
--Hold on there (said Tolik Bashmachkin)! You didn’t say what you’re drinking to.
Zhenka Last Name Lost held up his empty shot glass, addressed his left eye to its glitter.
--To our transcendence of all base superstitions. A toast in absentia.
--In absentia?
--Yes. The vodka in my glass is absent (I already drank it). The Lord God of Sabaoth is absent, being as He don’t exist anymore. And so is Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol absent in the flesh, but he’s here with us in spirit. Doing a Ukrainian hopak folk dance in them spiffy high-button brogans over there.

Zhenka winked with his good eye and gestured toward the shoes.
Tolik put on a frown: Yeah, I remember now; he came from Ukieland, Gogol did. Born and bred. Me, I never could stand the Ukies.
--That’s the damn God’s truth (agreed Zhenka). A Ukie is shrewd, brother. He’ll screw you out of your last kopeck; then, for good measure, he’ll make off with the shirt off your back. The day the Ukie was born, why, the Jew and the Georgian, they cried bitter tears.
Zhenka slowly shook his head, deploring the base treachery of the Ukrainian people.
--Did you have any trouble getting them shoes off his feet (Tolik suddenly asked)? He screwed up his lips to make a squeamish face.
--No trouble at all (said Shasha Khromov). No flesh to get in the way, just slippery bone.
He laughed, but his drinking buddies looked away. Nobody said anything for a minute or two. Zhenka peered around vacantly, stroking the wing of a stuffed parrot that stood on the small kitchen ice box.
--What was the point of it, anyway (asked Tolik morosely)? Digging him up, I mean.
--Somebody higher up decided to liquidate the cemetery out at our place. They’re transplanting Gogol and a few others. Putting them back in the ground at Novodevichy. We’ll be taking in juvenile delinquents now in our monastery buildings—setting up a reform school. 

Nobody said anything to that. 

Sunday, July 9, 2017

GOGOL READS FROM HIS WORKS, excerpt from U.R. Bowie novel, "GOGOL'S HEAD"

Head Detail from Andreev Statue of  Nikolai Gogol, Nikitsky Boulevard, Moscow

During the second half of the decade of the 1830s Gogol began doing what he did so well for the rest of his life: reading his works aloud to enthralled private audiences. One of his early performances took place in May, 1835, at the Moscow home of Pogodin, where he read an early draft of his comedy, The Marriage. S.T. Aksakov, who was to become one of Gogol’s most fervent admirers, was too ill to attend that event, but he reported on it secondhand.

“Gogol’s reading, or better to say acting out, of his play was so masterful that many people, those well-versed in such matters, are still saying to this day that—notwithstanding the excellent work of the actors on stage—this comedy remains not as complete, not as substantial, and far from being as funny as it is when read by its author . . . . The listeners laughed so hard that several of them almost became ill.” The host of the reading, Pogodin, who later became disillusioned with his “friend” Gogol, was equally full of praise in recalling the evening.

“At my house Gogol once read, to a large throng of listeners, his play “The Marriage.” He came to the part where the prospective groom and the bride are declaring their love—asking inane things like ‘What church did you go to last Sunday? What is your favorite color?’ Three times in a row there is an interval of silence between the questions, and he so masterfully expressed the silence, it so showed on his face and in his eyes that all of the listeners à la lettre went off into rollicking laughter. For a long time they could not restrain themselves, while he maintained that silence as if nothing were going on around him, and just let his eyes wander about the room.”

In January, 1836, Gogol gave another reading, this time of his Inspector General, at Zhukovsky’s residence in St. Petersburg. Among those attending were Pushkin, Count Vielgorsky— father of the young man who Gogol was later to nurse and cherish on his death bed in Rome, Josef Vielgorsky—and Prince P.A. Vyazemsky (1792-1878), poet and critic, a highly educated and cultivated man. Once again, Gogol read brilliantly, with great success. Possibly by this time Pushkin and Zhukovsky, who, in the beginning, had treated young Gogolyok largely as a figure of fun, were beginning to realize their mistake.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Book Review Article: Julian Barnes, THE SENSE OF AN ENDING

Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending (Penguin Random House, 2011)
[page numbers in parentheses refer to the First Vintage International Edition, May, 2012]


Here we have a novel with a narrator in the long tradition of the sad-sack loser telling his story. Anthony (Tony) Webster, resident of London, now in his sixties, looks back on his life from present time. The novel begins as Tony recalls his days as a student, a time when his life appeared to have a good deal of promise. We meet him as a teenage schoolboy in a public boys school—“public” being the British for “private”—pondering, along with his best friends Alex and Colin, certain grand philosophical issues, such as What is history? 

These boys, it would seem, are budding intellectuals, and when a new boy, Adrian, appears at the school and becomes their friend, he expands the boundaries of their intellectual pursuits. Topics raised in class are “Birth, Copulation and Death,” then “Eros and Thanatos” (6-7). Good title for this book: Birth, Copulation, Etc.

And then something happens. As Adrian postulates, when asked to describe the rule of Henry the Eighth, “there is one line of thought according to which all you can say of any historical event—even the outbreak of the First World War, for example—is that ‘something happened’” (5). Here we have another possible title for the book, Something Happened (although this one has already been taken by Joseph Heller).

What happens to the characters of the book is life, which has its ways of deflating human dreams and the scintillating promise of a future. We never learn much about what Alex and Colin make of their lives, inasmuch as the action of the novel is centered on Tony and Adrian. Tony’s life is, however, so dull and commonplace that the author (through Tony) gives us the birth-copulation part in only three pages (59-61). Tony met an ordinary woman named Margaret. They married, had a child, Susan. Margaret took up with another man and they divorced. Susan grew up (“They grow up so quickly, don’t they?”), married, had children of her own. At the present time of action Tony lives alone, retired, claims to be content (“I was used to my own routines, and fond of my solitude”).

So here we have Mr. Average, Anthony Webster, a man who “had wanted life not to bother me too much” (109), doing his best to live a life of “peaceableness,” fending off destiny’s attempts to roil with the peace by laying low. Here is how Part Two begins: “Later on in life, you expect a bit of rest, don’t you? You think you deserve it. I did anyway. But then you begin to understand that the reward of merit is not life’s business” (65). The “bit of rest” line is a brief nod to Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, a novel with a similar sad-sack of a narrator.

At this point it appears that there is nothing awaiting dull, quotidian Tony Webster, other than the third of three entities in the pattern: birth, copulation, death. But this is not a book about dying. It is a book about remembering. The main theme involves how we remember and misremember important things in our lives, how we write the story of our lives that we prefer, how, in the process of this writing, we let our memory distort certain facts in order to make the story more palatable—to others, and, more importantly, to our own selves.

We are all storytellers, of course. Maybe not in England, but at least in the American South, the term can be pejorative: “You’re a storyteller (liar); I don’t believe a thing you say.” Over and over passages throughout the novel reinforce this theme. Everything is nebulous. “Our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but mainly—to ourselves” (104). Very early on (p. 12) the narrator mentions “some primitive storytelling instinct . . . . which retrospectively imposed meaning on what might or might not have happened.” Memory, “a thing of shreds and patches” (115), is a storyteller as well.

Tony cautions the reader repeatedly that he cannot be sure of exactly what happened. “Again, I must stress that this is my reading now of what happened then. Or, rather, my memory now of my reading then of what was happening at the time” (45). What does literary critic Frank Kermode have to say about the unreliable narrator, in his book titled The Sense of an Ending?

Looking back on his past from a time approaching old age, Tony concerns himself primarily with an early love affair, his first love Veronica. The affair looms large for him, perhaps because he has had so few women in his life. At the beginning of the book Tony summarizes important images still in his memory, episodes in which Veronica was involved. Here’s how the book begins on page one.

“I remember, in no particular order:
                --a shiny inner wrist [see p. 145; this is a recollection of an act of masturbation, which took place the one time that Tony visited Veronica’s family]
                --steam rising from a wet sink as a hot frying pan is laughingly tossed into it [see p. 31; this is Veronica’s mother preparing eggs for him during that same visit]
                --gouts of sperm circling a plughole, before being sluiced down the full length of a tall house [see p. 123; this alludes to that same act of masturbation]
                --a river rushing nonsensically upstream, its wave and wash lit by half a dozen chasing torchbeams [see p. 38-39; 130; this is Tony’s visit to the Severn Bore, either with or without Veronica (his memory contradicts itself on that issue); more on the Severn Bore later]
                --another river, broad and grey, the direction of its flow disguised by a stiff wind exciting its surface [see p. 99; this is the River Thames, beside which Tony and Veronica sit on a bench, at their first meeting in forty years]
                --bathwater long gone cold behind a locked door [see p. 53; this alludes to probably the most important event in the whole book, Adrian’s death by suicide]
                This last isn’t something I actually saw, but what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed (my italics; there you have on page one a statement of the major theme of the book).”

At first Tony’s preoccupation with a love from forty years back seems puzzling. After all, he never really had much going with Veronica. At least in his recollections, she always treated him with condescension, withheld sex, strung him along while looking for someone more to her liking. They never appear to have been on the same wavelength. Even when he makes witty remarks her reaction is muted. Failing to recall her brother Jack, Tony asks, “[who] Jack?”

“My brother—you remember?”
“Let me see . . . Was he the one who was younger than your father?”
I thought that wasn’t bad, but she didn’t even smile” (34).

At another point, apparently trying to “clarify the relationship,” young Veronica gets nowhere and tells him, “You’re quite cowardly, aren’t you, Tony?” He replies [even then already a sad sack], “I think it’s more that I’m . . . peaceable” (38).

So they break up, and soon after that Veronica meets him by chance at a pub. They go back to her room, where she seduces him. This is their one and only act of sexual intercourse. At the moment their “love” is consummated, he decides that he wants nothing more to do with her. He resents the way she has held out on him, then has given him sex, apparently in an attempt to get him back. But then, despite the total breakup, he never entirely dismisses her from his mind. Why?

The answer lies in probably the most important hook-up in the book. Veronica soon gets together with Adrian, whom Tony looks up to as a genuine intellectual and considers his best friend. Although no latent homosexuality on Tony’s part is implied in the narrative, it seems clear that Adrian means more to Tony than Veronica does. He reacts to what he sees as a hideous betrayal with the rage of a lover scorned (although we learn the amplitude of that rage only in the second half of the book).

Then, while Tony, after having completed his university studies, is hitchhiking blithefully about the U.S., comes the novel’s most decisive event: Adrian, at age twenty-two, cuts his wrists in the bath. Who is responsible for the suicide? Well, everyone, and no one. As the philosopher schoolboy Adrian himself once remarked—apropos of who was responsible for the start of World War I—“Indeed, isn’t the whole business of ascribing responsibility a kind of cop-out? We want to blame an individual so that everyone else is exculpated. Or we blame a historical process as a way of exonerating individuals. Or it’s all anarchic chaos . . . . But of course, my desire to ascribe responsibility might be more a reflection of my own cast of mind than a fair analysis of what happened” (13).

For the rest of the book we have Tony’s trying to come to terms with this act, and never totally succeeding. For the rest of the book we seek “a fair analysis of what happened,” but we never really get that either. The issue of suicide is raised early on, when Robson, a rather undistinguished fellow pupil at the school, hangs himself, apparently after having got a girl pregnant.

In discussing Robson’s death, the philosopher schoolboys are rather flippant. Adrian remarks that in the eternal struggle of Eros and Thanatos “Thanatos wins again.” Then they consider the pregnant girlfriend, and, once again, we have the theme of storytelling. The boys have no idea of what this girl is like, so they make up variants on her: “We considered the options known to us: prim virgin (now ex-virgin), tarty shopgirl, experienced older woman, VD-riddled whore” (14-15).

Then Adrian gets into the philosophy of suicide: “Camus said that suicide was the only true philosophical question.” As we learn later on, the issue involves the way life is given unbidden to an individual, and, consequently, the way any individual can, ostensibly, opt to reject that unbidden gift. Of course, none of this applies, say the boys, to poor dumb Robson, whose action “had been unphilosophical, self-indulgent and inartistic: in other words, wrong” (15). Later on, in history class, Adrian brings up the suicide of Robson again, and in so doing he states another major theme of the whole book: we can never really know exactly what happened, in the lives of others, or even in our own past lives.

“Does that [suicide] note still exist? Was it destroyed? Did Robson have any other motives or reasons beyond the obvious ones? What was his state of mind? Can we be sure the child was his? We can’t know, sir, not even this soon afterwards. So how might anyone write Robson’s story in fifty years’ time, when his parents are dead and his girlfriend has disappeared and doesn’t want to remember him anyway?” (19).

In this persistently self-referential book, however, it later becomes obvious that the young Adrian is— unbeknownst to himself—discussing in advance issues that pertain to his own suicide at age twenty-two. Five or six years after Robson’s death, when Tony and his old friend Alex meet to discuss that suicide of their friend, their immediate assumption is that he was no Robson. His was an act of grace, of glorious free will, demonstrating “the superiority of the intervening act over the unworthy passivity of merely letting life happen to you” (54). In other words, brilliant Adrian returns unopened the gift he has never asked for, unlike sad sack Tony, who opens the gift but never does much at all with it, goes on incessantly letting life happen to him.

But at that same meeting Tony plants the seed for an issue that will burgeon and blossom later in the novel. “What I can’t work out is if it’s something complete in itself—I don’t mean self-regarding but, you know, just involving Adrian—or something that contains an implicit criticism of everyone else. Of us” (54-55). Already some neuron deep in his brain is aware that Tony himself is more complicit in that suicide than his storytelling consciousness is willing to admit. This sets us up for the intrigue of the second half of the book, and the author certainly provides us with a plethora of intrigue—perhaps, as the British say, too much intrigue by half.

As the saying goes, we all eventually become our parents. As schoolboys Tony and his friends fear that their lives will turn out not to be “Literature,” that they will end up in the same dull, gray world in which their parents dwell. In his sixties at the present time of the novel, Tony in fact has ended up in that same quotidian world. His life has not one iota of Literature about it, at least so it appears at the beginning of the second half of the book.

Then we get the intrigue involving the death of Veronica’s mother, her leaving five hundred pounds in her will to Tony—whom she met only once in her life—along with a letter and Adrian’s diary. After this Veronica comes back into his life, in a manner of speaking, and forty years after Adrian’s death he wrangles with her over the diary (which she has appropriated), chases after her, half back in love with her it seems. So that, in the second part of this short book the author puts his narrator Tony into something that appears to be Real Literature.

Except that it gradually becomes apparent that sad-sack Tony has ended up in a kind of skewed cheap mystery novel. Especially in the latter pages of the book mundane Tony—after what started out as his quest for the diary and the truth about Adrian—is enveloped in silly and inconsequential action that is, largely, melodramatic. He’s too unprepossessing to ever be a character in Literature, but he is the perfect literary personage for trite Melodrama. The use of melodrama in plot, and the way the narrator is enmeshed in the melodrama, once again reminds us of Ford’s The Good Soldier.

Tony pretends incessantly to be satisfied with himself and his life; he fights to maintain in his own mind the self-narrative that protects him. Late in his life he seems primarily preoccupied with proving to Veronica and others (but primarily to himself) that “I wasn’t a bad guy” (118). Pretending is his favorite mode of being. See, e.g., his too-often-repeated insistence that he and his daughter Susie get along well (112). Susie largely ignores her father, preferring to live her life without him. She practically never even lets him be with his grandchildren, although she says, “You can take Lucas to watch football when he’s older.”

His reaction to her suggestion is not expressed directly, but the bitterness spills over into a querulous description of what modern-day football is like.

“Ah, the rheumy-eyed grandpa on the terraces inducting the lad into the mysteries of soccer: how to loathe people wearing different coloured shirts, how to feign injury, how to blow your snot onto the pitch . . . how to be vain and overpaid and have your best years behind you before you’ve even understood what life’s about” (112). This paragraph purports to be saying something about football, but is really saying how angry Tony is with his “loving” daughter, and the last line, about having your best years behind you is subconscious description of self.

Shortly before that comes what must be the climax of the whole book (104-106), when Veronica sends him back a poison-pen letter that he wrote forty years ago, and, in the process, forces him to take a hard look at the narrative of self that he so assiduously has cultivated. Always intent on presenting himself to others and his own self as a mild-mannered and basically well-meaning man, Tony is forced to look in the letter at a different side of himself. Here are excerpts from that letter.

“Dear Adrian—or rather, Dear Adrian and Veronica (hello, Bitch, and welcome to this letter),
Well you certainly deserve one another and I wish you much joy. I hope you get so involved that the mutual damage will be permanent. I hope you regret the day I introduced you. And I hope that when you break up, as you inevitably will . . . . . that you are left with a lifetime of bitterness that will poison your subsequent relationships. Part of me hopes you’ll have a child, because I’m a great believer in time’s revenge, yea unto the next generation . . . .
Even her own mother warned me against her. If I were you, I’d check things out with Mum"

The letter ends as follows, “Compliments of the season to you, and may the acid rain fall on your joint and anointed heads” (104-106).

There are several big revelations near the end of the book. For one thing, Adrian’s grand philosophical gesture of returning the unwanted gift of life is called into question. His suicide may have actually resembled that of poor gormless Robson. Caught in a bad situation Adrian possibly “took the easy way out.” That situation involves a retarded child named Adrian, along with Veronica’s mother and her relationship to that child.

Veronica as old woman could have cleared up a lot of the mystery for the narrator and the reader, but she is portrayed as stubbornly obtuse and opaque, muttering a few confusing phrases by e-mail and in person, and—for some reason hard to fathom—leading Tony and the reader around by the nose, pointing out things that are obvious to her, trying to force dull Tony into finally “getting it.”

As reviewer I suppose I should not reveal all of the intricate twists of plot at the end, for fear of spoiling the mystery novel for prospective readers. Suffice it to say that Tony’s poison pen letter ends up being something like a curse placed upon the heads of Veronica and Adrian. See p. 151: “when I reread my words [in the letter] they seemed like some ancient curse I had forgotten even uttering.” In other words, many of the events that he had maliciously wished upon the two in his letter actually come to pass, and forty years later Tony finds himself complicit in the ruining of several lives.

Whether any of this is believable is another issue, and I found myself at the end wishing that maybe not quite so many fantastical plot lines had made it into the story. There is, for example, as part of Adrian’s diary—on the one page Veronica allows Tony to see—a mathematical formula involving the integers b, a1, a2, s, and v. On the next to last page of the book Tony somehow deduces that these letters refer to himself and the other characters, miraculously comprehends the formula. As melodrama, however, I suppose that all of this stuff works. Furthermore, given that the novel is so well composed, I suppose that these melodramatic effects were what the author was working toward all along.


I don’t think I’ve ever read a book with so many good suggestions for its title in the text of the narrative. The Sense of an Ending is teeming with good titles, some of them possibly better than The Sense of an Ending.

Here are some of them: Philosophically Self-Evident (a phrase used repeatedly, ironically, throughout the book); Time Is (Not) on My Side (a line from a Rolling Stones song also used repeatedly, but without the word “not”); Every Day Is Sunday (see, e.g., p. 68, 158); Chicken in Half Mourning (p. 120, a great description of Tony); and two suggested epitaphs for the narrator: On His Own Now and He Never Got It (158).

Maybe the best title of all for this book would be The Severn Bore, which alludes to a major image in the book as well as to its main character’s boring, dull personality. Twice in the novel (38-39; 140) and again on the very last page (163) Tony describes a visit to the Severn River, to watch the phenomenon of the bore: the backward wave moving upstream, caused by the high tide at the mouth of the river. You wonder what this has to do with the action of the novel, but the author helpfully inserts several passages elsewhere in the book relative to backward flows.

“I was saying, confidently, how the chief characteristic of remorse is that nothing can be done about it: that the time has passed for apology or amends. But what if I’m wrong? What if by some means remorse can be made to flow backward, can be transmuted into simple guilt, then apologized for, and then forgiven?” (117).

“And this personal time, which is the true time, is measured in your relationship to memory. So when this strange thing happened—when these new memories suddenly came upon me—it was as if, for that moment, time had been placed in reverse. As if, for that moment, the river ran upstream” (133-34).

“What had begun as a determination to obtain property bequeathed to me [the diary] had morphed into something much larger, something which bore on the whole of my life, on time and memory. And desire. I thought—at some level of my being I actually thought—that I could go back to the beginning and change things. That I could make the blood flow backwards. I had the vanity to imagine—even if I didn’t put it more strongly than this—that I could make Veronica like me again, and that it was important to do so” (142).

Of course, life never can be made to operate backwards or inside out, like that backwards cresting wave on the Severn River. Neither can remorse be made to flow backwards, and viciously spilled blood flows only in one direction. At the end of the book Tony bears a crushing weight of responsibility, and feels unrest, great unrest. Yes, the best title for this novel is The Severn Bore.