Thursday, December 15, 2005

Endings: torturous, cathartic, ultimately satisfying


Philip Hensher, author of The Mulberry Empire, writes in the Telegraph on the importance of fine endings in a literary work. He marks the last lines from the world’s best-known books, including Emma, Pride and Prejudice, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Not only does he dwell on the writer’s obligation to provide a befitting conclusion to their work, but also discusses the importance of cadence in this scheme. Cadence, he asserts, is what distinguishes a good book from a masterpiece.

While reading the piece, the ending of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway kept ringing in my head, and I was desperate for Hensher to refer to it. He does not mention it, but he acknowledges the amorphous ending by citing The Ambassadors:

The predominant mode, really, for 100 years, has been the straightforward Ambiguous Ending. When The Ambassadors ends, " 'Then there we are!' said Strether," what on Earth does that mean? Readers have been arguing over that for 100 years.

How very similar this passage is to Peter Walsh’s final thoughts:

What is this terror? What is this ecstasy?...What is it that fills me with extraordinary excitement?
It is Clarissa, he said.
For there she was.

Then it strikes you, The Ambassadors was written by Henry James. Both modernists, the similarity in their work has been attributed as much to their styles (stream of consciousness) as to their willingness to strip gendered definitions in their works. Virginia did, of course, question the boundaries between masculine and feminine sensibilities, most notably in Orlando. Is it any wonder then that to followers of the Master, Woolf is the unchallenged diva of the kind of prose that lays claim on your emotional sanity and lives within you long after the pages have turned yellow?

Here’s Hensher’s take on Brokeback Mountain, much in the news only now, despite being a gem of a work:

When Annie Proulx ends her novella Brokeback Mountain with the sad assertion, "There was some open space between what he knew and what he tried to believe, but nothing could be done about it, and if you can't fix it, you've got to stand it," no one is likely to complain about its old-fashioned quality.

Read this piece for an astute primer on the gifts of the writerly life.

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