Drabble, Margaret. The Pure Gold Baby. 2013. Toronto: Harper Perennial, 2014.
How recognisable are the ambitious, academically gifted sixth formers of Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending. We remember those days, don’t we, when we knew our own strengths, knew what we wanted, knew who would really achieve something, would make a name for himself or herself, and believed in the probability of achieving something for ourselves. We remember it all so clearly: the world of our optimistic, gifted, even arrogant, late teens. We could spell Nietzsche, ran poetry clubs, knew the world was just waiting for us. The sixth form and honours programs at university: were they really so long ago? How many of us actually did read our futures right?
The narrator of The Sense of an Ending claims that at “the end of life . . . . You are allowed . . . time enough to ask the question: what else have I done wrong?” (149). In Barnes’ novella (surely it cannot be a novel at only a 150 pages?), narrator Tony Webster recalls his past when a surprise legacy forces him to re-examine his understanding of his earlier life and in particular his relationship with Veronica, his lover at university, who left him for his old school-friend Adrian Finn, who later committed suicide.
I first read it when it came out in 2011 and returned to it recently when it was chosen by my reading group. However, bogged down with drafts of policies, emails, agenda and so forth, as I am recently on behalf of a recently formed organization, I haven’t had much (any?) time for reviewing, though I have managed to keep up with my reading. So before I had blogged about The Sense of An Ending, I had also finished Margaret Drabble’s The Pure Gold Baby, and I couldn’t help but notice how similar in some ways the two books are, dealing as they do with a broad time span, the sixties to the present, and dealing with memory and what we know of the past. Is what we believe we know accurate? What have we forgotten? What stories about ourselves do we construct in good faith even though our memories are faulty? What stories do others construct about us?
The Pure Gold Baby has a first person narrator, Nellie, who tells the story of her friend Jess, an anthropology student and single mother who raises her daughter in North London. We follow Jessica Speight from the late sixties to the present, and watch her neighbourhood change as it becomes more diverse and gentrifies, and as friends move away, divorce, become famous, succumb to illness, retire. Jess’s baby Anna, the pure gold baby of the title, grows to adulthood. The narrator assures us that she hasn’t “invented much,” admits to having some things “wrong,” but says she’s “tried to give a sense of what it was like, in our neighbourhood, in our time”(290).
Both novels, then, address the whole issue of trying to get a story right. Both narrators realise their own unreliability, though it takes Barnes’ Tony much of the novel to realise this. Drabble’s narrator is aware of the challenges in getting Jess’s story right and admits to being “ashamed” of her own “temerity” (14) in making the attempt.
Being at least twice as long as The Sense of an Ending, The Pure Gold Baby enables Drabble to focus somewhat more closely than Barnes on the social changes that have occurred over the past forty to fifty years. We are given more close detail about change, as Nellie reminds us not only how places have changed physically but also about changes in attitudes. She emphasises the passing of time with words and phrases such as “this was a time when it was fashionable . . . ,” (62) or “at that time,” and “then.” She reiterates that she is looking back at the past, trying to make some sense of it, trying to fit the experiences of her generation into a context.
The Pure Gold Baby looks most closely at the changing ways in which our society has defined and continues to define “the other.” David Livingstone the missionary doctor and explorer is a recurring motif in the novel. Drabble draws subtle and not so subtle parallels between the way in which anthropologists and ethnologists risk dehumanising and depersonalizing individuals so risking collaboration with a negative colonizing practice and the way in which “the medical experts, the geneticists, the psychiatrists, the educationalists, the psychometric testers, the Mendelian mathematicians, the frauds and the faithful and the fanatics, the sociologists and the philosophers” (53) classify those who somehow do not measure up to societal definitions of normal. Nellie reminds us that the “debate . . . is never finally or satisfactorily resolved” (53). There is no real sense of ending.
And yet both Tony Webster and Nellie are very concerned with endings, literal, physical endings: “We are dying off, one by one” (Drabble 290). In life as in fiction, we desire resolution. Tony Webster looks back at his memories and generalises about life: “There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest” (Barnes 150). Barnes’ work ends on a note of unease. While the reader may experience some resolution (and there was debate about this among my reading group) within the plot structure of the book, the narrator apparently experiences no real resolution, only discomfort.
Given Barnes’ title, one cannot avoid making the connection between his fiction and Frank Kermode’s work of the same name, first published in 1966/7 and reissued with an Epilogue in 2000. Kermode’s opening statement surely still resonates today: “It is not expected of critics as it is of poets that they should help us to make sense of our lives; they are bound only to attempt the lesser feat of making sense of the ways we try to make sense of our lives (Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction with a New Epilogue. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000, 3). I suppose in some minor way, this blog is attempting the task outlined in the second clause of Kermode’s sentence.
My sense is that Barnes and Drabble are addressing both issues: first as story tellers trying to help us come to terms with where we are and where we have come from, and second as critics who draw attention to the apparent unreliability of fiction. But as both writers point out, our memories are unreliable; perhaps, therefore, the most reliable aspect of both The Sense of an Ending and The Pure Gold Baby is their recognition that our memories are untrustworthy, and the stories and explanations we fabricate from those memories are therefore even more insecure. In that sense, then, fiction becomes more reliable than actuality, because we know fiction to be a construct.
In his Epilogue, Kermode refers to “the development of a fiction into an instrument for the interpretation of fictions (195), and it was certainly this aspect of the two novels that interested me most intellectually. Emotionally, I responded rather differently. Both works, but especially Barnes’ reminded me of Howard Jacobson’s The Making of Henry that I reviewed earlier this year. I couldn’t help notice that writers of a certain generation are, unsurprisingly I suppose, becoming interested in the vanishing of time. “The end is predicated, and yet we do not know what it will be” (Drabble 63). We also wonder if our time has past, we who once knew that we would change the world. Do we still believe that “the imagination’s first duty . . .[is] to be transgressive”? (Barnes 10). We are afraid, to use the idiom of our youth, that we are “past it.”
We realise that the world changed, almost imperceptibly at times; we aren’t sure that our maps are sufficient for us to navigate the future—they may have misled us about the past—and we are not that comfortable with GPS. We know that, too, can be unreliable. Kermode talks of the “extraordinary resilience” (8) of the idea of apocalypse. Of course, the idea is resilient. Quite apart from any natural or political disaster that may or may not occur in our lifetimes, what we are sure of is that our world, the milieu we thought we understood is passing, as are we. We await our own endings with various degrees of confidence even bravado. The Sense of an Ending and The Pure Gold Baby are two expressions of our angst.