The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes

I decided to pick up The Sense of an Ending after hearing an interview with the author, Julian Barnes, on NPR. This is the first of his novels that I’ve read, and I’m not familiar with much of his work, but after this I plan to seek out more of his work.

Tony Webster, an English man in his 60s, is briefly nudged out of his routine life as a retiree after he receives an odd, unexpected bequest from a former girlfriend’s mother. He’s been left 500 pounds and the diary of a former schoolmate. As it turns out, the former girlfriend, Veronica, refuses to hand over the diary. Tony sets out to reconnect with her so that he can retrieve it, or at least that’s what he tells himself on the surface of things.

The surface of things, the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and who other people in our lives are relative to ourselves and our own stories, is the premise of the book. Tony’s relationships with Veronica and Adrian did not end well, and at the beginning of the book he clearly blames each of them, but as he attempts to recover the diary from Veronica and revisits his past, he begins to re-frame what happened and his part in it.

The plot is thin, but I still don’t want to give too much away about the mechanics, because they are central to how Tony’s understanding of himself begins to change. The book begins with a series of images:

I remember, in no particular order:

–a shiny inner wrist;

–steam rising from a wet sink as a hot frying pan is laughingly tossed into it;

–gouts of sperm circling a plughole, before being sluiced down the full length of a tall house;

–a river rushing nonsensically upstream, its wave and wash lit by half a dozen chasing torch beams;

–another river, broad and grey, the direction of its flow disguised by a stiff wind exciting the surface;

–bathwater long gone cold behind a locked door.

This last isn’t something I actually saw, but what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.

In the first part of the book, Tony looks back at his past without telling the reader why he’s doing so, and he builds his story around the images he’s offered in the opening paragraph. The second part of the book is about his present quest to recover the diary. The opening of the book made me think of Brideshead Revisited, in that I expected the story of a formative relationship between classmates–and that is one element, although the relationship between Tony and Adrian is much different than the relationship between Charles and Sebastian. Adrian is somewhat of a mystery to Tony and the two other boys that make up their little group.

What I think Barnes does so well is to capture the overwhelming emotions of youth. I think we all have people from our pasts, people whom we may no longer keep in touch with or who may be gone, people we may not have ever been close to, really, in the first place, but who still hold sway over our memories, who still seem larger than life to us. It’s strange to think how people can stay trapped in our memories like insects in amber, forever frozen as who they were, even though in their present lives they might actually be quite different people.

The other thing that struck me as interesting about this book is how Tony must come to grips with how his own actions affected people in the past in ways he had never before realized or considered. In creating such large memories of people in our pasts, in holding on to what’s been done to us instead of what we have done, we somehow manage to diminish ourselves and our part in things. And in hanging on to our memories, we hang on to who we were then, even if it doesn’t suit who we are now.

As serious as all of this sounds, the book is not without humor. Tony is a likable, regular fellow for the most part, and he’s self-effacing and smart enough that you don’t mind spending time with him while he unravels everything that’s happened. He’s a bit like a friend who’s telling you an embarrassing story from which he’s not exactly going to emerge smelling like a rose, but you don’t mind because you like him anyway. You’re a lot alike, the two of you, and you’ve got stories of your own.

Some passages:

This was hopeless. In a novel, Adrian wouldn’t just have accepted things as they were put to him. What was the point of having a situation worthy of fiction if the protagonist didn’t behave as he would have done in a book? Adrian should have gone snooping, or saved up his pocket money and employed a private detective; perhaps all four of us should have gone off on a Quest to Discover the Truth. Or would that have been less like literature and too much like a kids’ story?

Later on in life, you expect a bit of rest, don’t you? You think you deserve it. I did, anyway. But then you begin to understand that the reward of merit is not life’s business.

Also, when you are young, you think you can predict the likely pains and bleaknesses that age might bring. You imagine yourself being lonely, divorced, widowed; children growing away from you, friends dying. You imagine the loss of status, the loss of desire–and desirability. You may go further and consider your own approaching death, which, despite what company you might muster, can only be faced alone. But all this is looking ahead. What you fail to do is look ahead, and then imagine yourself looking back from the future point. Learning the new emotions that time brings. Discovering, for example, that as the witnesses to your life diminish, there is less corroboration, and therefore less certainty, as to what you are or have been. Even if you have assiduously kept records–in words, sound, pictures–you may find that you have attended to the wrong kind of record-keeping. What was the line Adrian used to quote? “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”

Book source: Library

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6 comments

  1. I am so glad to hear that you enjoyed this one! I have only read one book by Barnes (A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters), but it really knocked my socks off and immediately catapulted him onto my list of “authors whose entire back catalog I must read”. I have a copy of this one waiting for me, so I’m really glad to hear it affected you so strongly.

  2. Steph, that’s good to know. I’ll put that one on my list to read next. I really did enjoy this one, and I might even consider purchasing a copy so I can read it again.

  3. Hello, I just found your blog through Nymeth’s link and just wanted to say I liked your review and what you say about memory. My favourite of Julian Barnes’ books is the one I read first, Metroland, so I’d recommend that one – it’s also about a friendship between two boys who are at school together and how it changes when they grow up. It had quite an effect on me when I was a teenager.

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