Arts & Letters Daily says this lovely, generous essay about the last lines of novels is by Philip Hensher, and I’m glad they say so, because the page itself gives no indication of authorship. I call the piece “generous” in the sense, simply, of “long,” because you know this same piece assigned by the NYTBR or most other American papers would never be permitted to run more than half this version’s nearly 2,000 words and would, accordingly, be much impoverished.
Hensher has a great and true premise: as much as we literary types love to recite and dwell on and argue about great first lines, the way a novel ends is a more interesting and revealing matter. There’s far more at stake. Especially after modernism, it’s hard to see the question of how to end as anything other than a great problem for novelists. How they tend to solve it may tell us something about the philosophical temperament of their time and place. Writes Hensher:
But there are two questions at stake here, in what Frank Kermode called “the sense of an ending.” One is how far a novelist believes in the end of a story, either through perfect happiness or complete catastrophe. The other is just the sense of a cadence; the sort of thing that sounds final, even if the novel’s concerns are provisional, incomplete. A novel with an unimpeachably happy ending may finish on an incomplete cadence, like Bleak House‘s “even supposing -“. Conversely, a novel where all the questions remain unanswered at the end can, more rarely, have a resoundingly firm cadence, just like [Henry] Green’s Loving.
(The Green novel ends, ironically, “Over in England they were married and lived happily ever after.”)
I don’t have a whole lot to add to what Hensher writes. He covers the topic admirably and, whew, comes up with a wholly satisfying last graf. Read the whole thing. But his piece did send me scurrying to various bookcases to see precisely how some beloved books left matters. And yet the problem with endings, one that doesn’t vex beginnings, is that in many cases you can’t share them without perhaps compromising a new reader’s experience of the book. The final line of The Turn of the Screw, for instance, is remarkable for its ambiguity and yet all too revealing. Here’s one that gives nothing away, is pretty bracing, and, I skirts all of the categories Hensher delineates:
Poor all of us, when you come to think of it.
It’s from Graham Greene, The Third Man, and it’s a long sight down a one-way road from “God bless us, every one!”