Impressed by the furious wanking
Posted March 17, 2012on:
English men can be very complicated, especially if they’ve had a good education, as Julian Barnes proves in this short, pithy, ironic story of an English man looking back on his life.
The language is exemplary. The jokes are elegant. The sensibility is refined. The wanking is furious.
And then there’s the philosophy…
Julian Barnes’s real-life English teacher once said, “Of course everyone’s worried about what happens when Ted Hughes runs out of animals.”
“We thought it was the wittiest thing we had ever heard,” Barnes confessed in an interview in the Paris Review (Winter 2000).
The fictional Tony Webster’s English teacher says the same thing and Tony finds himself thinking about it often over the years. But Ted Hughes never did run out of animals. That’s the really funny and wonderful thing.
Our lifelong concerns are often misguided, aren’t they? The things that impressed us when we were young turn out to be facile in the end.
In fact this story is a kind of meditation on how our memories distort reality, if reality is, indeed, ever in a state that could be said to be undistorted. How much of what is passing for reality do we actually understand? How much is fact, how much is fiction, how much is simple ignorance? Or complicated ignorance, if you’ve had an English public school education.
Is Tony Webster Julian Barnes?
Probably not. Tony Webster is bald and Julian Barnes has a full head of hair. Or so it seems.
But the questions go on.
Do the people who read this story understand it? Some of them do. But if you take a look at the reviews on some websites, you will see that a lot of people missed the point. Some have even made up completely different stories based on an unfathomable logic all their own.
If I were Julian Barnes I would probably sigh and hold my beautifully coiffured head in my hands and wonder if it was all worth it.
And then I’d probably write an elliptical, poignant, ironic novel about how elusive philosophically self-evident truths can be.