Absorbed by the whiteness

White
by Marie Darrieussecq
translated from French by Ian Monk

I added this to my wishlist when it was first published in English, on the back of a blog review (probably Savidge Reads, but I now forget). It was always going to appeal to me: scientists and engineers in Antarctica, international collaboration, humour and romance. But somehow it stayed sat on my wishlist for years.

Earlier this year Tim and I finally made it to Shakespeare & Co in Paris (we’d been to Paris before but hadn’t squeezed in the bookshop). I wanted to buy something translated from French and this title immediately came to mind. Amazingly, it was right there in their surprisingly small translated-from-French section. Of course, this means it has the awesome Shakespeare & Co stamp on the title page so I was never going to get rid of the book no matter how it turned out. But thankfully I do really like it.

The story (written in 2003) is set in a near future where people communicate via 3D holograms, the first manned mission is on its way to Mars, and the first permanent European base in Antarctica is under construction. (This last, arguably the entire basis for the story, does betray some lack of knowledge of Antarctic history – unless the translator has omitted the key modifier “pan-European”, which would be a first. Several European countries have their own permanent Antarctic bases.)

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Time is supposed to measure history, isn’t it?

The Sense of an Ending
by Julian Barnes

This book has left me puzzled. I was happily reading it, enjoying the slow, thoughtful prose, and then the last page happened and I thought, “What?!” Is that a standard sign of a Booker prize winner? Or is it just my standard reaction to Julian Barnes?

It’s a little difficult to discuss this book without giving too much away. It’s so short, only 150 pages, and is one of those books where you could say very little happens, or that a lot happens. Which is fine. The language is beautiful, measured and philosophical.

Briefly, narrator Tony Webster is retired, divorced, but generally happy with his ordinary life. Then something happens (and we don’t find out what until halfway through) to remind him of his childhood friend Adrian. Adrian was always the brilliant, serious, passionate one and Tony muses on the lost passions of youth, love, friendship, life and death. There’s a lot of musing.

“The history that happens underneath our noses ought to be the clearest, and yet it’s the most deliquescent. We live in time, it bounds us and defines us, and time is supposed to measure history, isn’t it? But if we can’t understand time, can’t grasp its mysteries of pace and progress, what chance do we have with history – even our own small, personal, largely undocumented piece of it?”

Through flashback, Tony revisits his childhood and early adulthood. During the story he is led to question his memory, not just of events but of other people’s experiences of the same events. Which isn’t exactly original, but it’s done reasonably well.

“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.”

The storyline annoyed me but the writing was provocative, intellectually stimulating. I’m glad I read it but I’m not sure I rate it as highly as other Booker winners I’ve read. I know a few people have said that it’s a book that demands re-reading so perhaps I should do that to see if I missed something?

“It ought to be obvious to us that time doesn’t act as a fixative, rather as a solvent. But it’s not convenient – it’s not useful – to believe this; it doesn’t help us get on with our lives; so we ignore it.”

Published 2011 by Jonathan Cape.
Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2011.