The End of Loneliness review: tale of reliving a past and seeking a different present
Benedict Wells’s novel has structural flaws but literary and emotive highs
Benedict Wells: when his novel most needs to be sophisticated, it is. Moments bristle with narrative thrill and truth.
The End of Loneliness
“Imagination, the supreme delight of the immortal and the immature, should be limited,” says Nabokov in his memoir Speak, Memory, which exerts a force on German-Swiss author Benedict Wells’s first book to be translated into English. “In order to enjoy life, we should not enjoy it too much.”
Jules Moreau, the narrator of The End of Loneliness, has struggled with this advice. Waking from a motorbike accident in 2014, either disorientated or seeing his life before him, he starts “going over all the different stages of my past”. Yet we learn that reliving his past and imagining an alternative present has been his life’s occupation.
After his parents died in a car crash, Jules and his siblings are sent to a boarding school-cum-children’s home. Believing that he was destined to have a different life, he can’t help but let his childhood before the crash shape the rest of his life, sometimes in an act of redress. He tries unsuccessfully to become a photographer, his family believe, because he was once unappreciative of a camera his father bought him. And a piece of fatherly advice, taken to heart, ensures his loneliness and idealism: “the most important thing is that you find your true friend, Jules [ . . .] it’s more important than anything, even love”. Once he has developed a friendship with Alva, a girl who is suffering from her own unquenchable loss and loneliness, he will let this early relationship overshadow everything else.
“Deep down I felt that this wasn’t my real life, anyway,” thinks Jules about an unfulfilling relationship. “That I was still going to swap it with the one in which my parents were still alive.” But it is precisely his love affair with memory and paths not lived that ensures he finds the most rewarding thing in his life. His interrupted 30 years of knowing Alva are beautifully rendered: moving and wise, occasionally timeless.
There are also structural problems which are very visible, probably because of how well-managed the central storytelling can be. The present day framing device gives short, vivid tasters of what is to come. In the first few pages we are promised motorbikes and a near-death experience, before being given an earnest, chronological and dutiful life’s story in a vein of naturalism at odds with the urgency of the opening: “When I was seven, my family went on holiday to the south of France. My father, Stéphane Moreau, was from Berdillac, a village near Montpellier. One thousand eight hundred inhabitants . . .”
At the start of later sections the present resurfaces only to give way to the past in a similar rallentando. One opens with promises of “rifle cartridges”, more on that motorbike, and worse but more dramatic prose: “The abyss is staring me in the face. And I stare back.” On that count there are more blips in what can be at times an acute style, sometimes due to the source material, sometimes due to stilted translation: at one point an “ice-cream salesman” appears.
The End of Loneliness is a German bestseller and a winner of 2016’s European Union Prize for Literature. Yet is there anything qualitatively different, in Wells’s use of this sort of prefiguring, from potboilers that flash us a shot ringing out on the moors, only to commence an unhurried narrative leading to the teased events? What is worrying, at a wider level, is that this can be ubiquitous in prize-winning fiction. Julian Barnes’s 2011 Booker winner The Sense of an Ending similarly starts with a vivid first page outlining some of the memories that will become pertinent to the story, only to give way to a stolid from-the-beginning chronology in a different tone.
At least with Wells, there is a level of consistency to the inconsistency. There are portentous bookends within the recollection itself. “Later, when they were gone, we were forced to realise that we knew nothing about them, absolutely nothing.” Variants of the cadence “it was only years later” punctuate things.
Yet when Wells most needs to be sophisticated, he is. Jules and Alva’s first reunion after a decade of silence prickles both with narrative thrill and truth. Jules “enjoyed this velvety tension” between the pair of them, but “felt as if our real selves were far away, and we’d sent two negotiators to the bar who weren’t authorised to talk about the really important things”. And when tragedy comes, it has been subtly seeded and artfully concealed through the deployment of Jules’s dreaming. His projection into kinder realities offers the novel’s most literary and most immediate, emotive pleasures.