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The world of academic papers and luxury hotels that Perlmann inhabits is remote indeed from the "leaning tower", the jerry-built Romanian apartment building where Müller's narrator lives. Both writers, though, describe distinctively German destinies that have echoes of past centuries. The German minority in Transylvania, which has largely emigrated since 1989, had been there since the medieval exodus that is recorded in the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. And the German yearning for Italy, so typical of the real-life Perlmanns, dates back even further, to that thousand-year Reich known as the Holy Roman Empire. The modern academic, as peripatetic and polyglot as Perlmann's peers, is a descendant, however distant, of the wandering scholars of the Middle Ages or the humanists of the Renaissance. But the German variety of this species is still drawn to recapture the sense of freedom that was so well recorded by Goethe when he, too, fled south to the land where the lemon trees grow. And so, too, is the young woman living in the squalor and terror of Ceausescu's totalitarian swamp. Both protagonists fail to escape their destinies: Müller's girl never gets to Italy; Mercier's professor turns it into an ordeal. But both writers succeed in transcending the danger of provincialism: these two novels could only have been written in German.

How, then, do contemporary Continental novelists compare with their Anglophone counterparts? Of the latter, perhaps the most "European" is Julian Barnes, who has made the Englishman in Paris his theme ever since his debut, Metroland, more than 30 years ago, composing ever more elaborate variations, from Flaubert's Parrot to the stories of Cross Channel and the essays of Something to Declare. Yet The Sense of an Ending, his latest novel, turns its back on affectations of cosmopolitanism and reverts to an England that was still England, even if it was in the Sixties: an England of bacon and eggs, hang-ups about sex and class, in which characters could still make remarks such as: "I hate the way the English have of not being serious about being serious." In its terse, unadorned prose, pared down to the length of a novella, The Sense of an Ending develops the introspective reflections on mortality of Barnes's memoir Nothing To Be Frightened Of, with its signature line: "I don't believe in God, but I miss Him." Late Barnes is ruminative, rueful and mercilessly rude about the havoc wrought by time — the time of which Eliot speaks in "Burnt Norton", where "Footfalls echo in the memory/Down the passage we did not take/Towards the door we never opened/Into the rose-garden." He is impatient with the self-justifications that a God-forsaken world offers itself in place of the old theodicies. He wants to make sense of life and death in the absence of transcendence, but he rejects the received wisdom of his generation that "all you need is love". For late Barnes, everything is too late: above all wisdom.

Tony Webster, the narrator, considers himself "average", unexceptional and unexceptionable in any way. His schoolfriend Adrian, however, is exceptional in every way: intellectually, socially and morally. So, too, is his girlfriend Veronica, but in a bad way: even her own mother warns him: "Don't let Veronica get away with too much." Tony has a vague sense that both his friend and his lover are condescending to him, but it is only when his humiliation seems complete that he commits an act of rebellion that will haunt him for life. The catastrophe that then befalls his significant others takes place offstage. In Part II the reader is conducted rapidly through the next 40 years of Tony's life to his humdrum retirement in present-day London, at which point his earlier existence catches up with him. This time there is no catastrophe, simply a dawning awareness of the past, its consequences and its meaning for the present.

It is a familiar narrative structure, but in the hands of the master-wordsmith that Barnes has become, the effect is cumulatively overwhelming. In fact, the concept of accumulation is central to the novel, introduced by Adrian in his brilliant, fragmentary and forlorn attempt to express human relationships in mathematical formulae, somewhat in the manner of Wittgenstein's Tractatus. Barnes is attempting something extremely difficult, perhaps impossible: the precise assignment of culpability, the application of the "moral sciences" to the novel. This sounds dry in theory, but in practice it makes for a compelling, disturbing and profoundly moving story of human fallibility. Although the setting and characters are inimitably English, Barnes attains a classical universality here that had hitherto eluded him. The more English his material, the more genuinely European he becomes. It is as if his experience, his erudition and his intelligence had all been distilled into a tiny phial of the elixir of life. To use a catchphrase of Tony and his friends, The Sense of an Ending is "philosophically self-evident": it makes sense of the senselessness of existence.

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