Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Fail Again, Only This Time, Fail Better


Reading Colm Toibin’s provocative and cogent review of Julian Barnes’s latest novel, The Sense of an Ending, in the current edition of The New York Review of Books, set off a falling row metaphor of dominoes in your mind, the Barnes novel causing the Henry James short story “The Man in the Middle” to topple, which in its turn tipped the James novel, The Ambassadors, which had its way with Ian McEwen’s Saturday, which fell on Louise Erdrich’s The Plague of Doves, which triggered Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift, which…

Thus, here you are, pausing as you sometimes do to consider story in which one or more characters speculates on whether his or her life had been lived well, which is to say to its fullest potential.

There have been, you note, men and women of all stripes and ranges who have distinguished themselves by expressing attitudes and activities that in turn have made life seem a grander celebration of good or evil or intelligence or industry or inventiveness than we could ever hope to make of it, rendering them, in our consideration, paragons of positive and negative achievement.

Degrees of potential seem to erupt from such stories of the extraordinary in our midst; reminding us that mediocrity lurks as a worse fate than failure.  Such is the nature of our societal history that extraordinary success is presumed, prima facie, to have arisen from the ashes of failure.  To put it another way, Failure 1 is the prerequisite course for Success 1.

You currently follow the trail leading to the belief that more individuals will see their lives as having bordered more closely to failure than to success, while the same life, viewed from differing points of view outside the self-observer, will be seen as having some footage on the success coast.

Seeing a life in retrospect is an occupation of the middle-aged, those in advanced middle age, and those who appear to be waiting out their final orders.  You are more than benevolent toward yourself in your regard of your life as a mischievous and agreeable patchwork quilt of failure.  The Peter Principle has often propelled you in areas where, in earlier stages of your life, you saw yourself as lacking the social skills, lacking the drive, or the ability to perform at the level you now found yourself, your vision of self visualizing you in some office, all right, some corner office, but nevertheless not the main office, doing in more or less solitary residence the things you do well.

Had this sense of being a living embodiment of the Peter Principle happened only once, you would have been more convinced of its accuracy, but when it comes in new surroundings, more or less yanking you out of the corner office and into larger gatherings, you begin to suspect that “they” might be right.

Throughout the years since you first read it, the splendid critic, Edward M. Said’s final work Late Style, has been one of the literary ghosts haunting you (along with the ghosts of the books and stories you have wanted to write, have written copious notes about, even paragraphs and pages on, but have not yet completed).  Said argues at kinds of stylistic traces of maturity in the works of artists at the end of their career, suggesting more than simplistic resignation or even acceptance, but rather a more balanced vision of the quality we talk at and about, when we speak of the life lived in some useful degree.

In many ways, you feel young, young enough to venture the occasional foolishness and brio not associated with late style or any sense of mellowing.  You once heard your literary agent describing you to a publisher as a person who did not suffer fools lightly, particularly himself.  You agree that you take foolishness with serious focus, and mean to infuse your later years with it on a grand scale of texture and nuance.

Some stories, particularly in the later works of Henry James, deal with individuals who come to believe they have wasted their life, and others in which characters who apparently have wasted their life are by no means aware of the fact.

The Julian Barnes novel, The Sense of an Ending, beckons to you because it so clearly makes use of Barnes’s friendship with the late poet, Philip Larkin, and because you’ve enjoyed much of Barnes’s earlier work, notably Flaubert’s Parrot.  But the interior battle over subject matter begins taking hold, and amid the clamor, you find yourself insisting you are not as interested to read about individuals wondering if their life was well spent or not as you are about individuals who have expansive, bodacious plans, doomed for the magnificent fireworks of gaudy failure.

Success is rather boring in comparison to the endless varieties of quest expended on its behalf.


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