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"How far do the limits of responsibility extend?"
on November 1, 2011
I see that The Sense of an Ending has polarized opinion here and there. Personally I found it an almost - but not quite - immaculate piece of short fiction. And far, far superior to the other four Booker-shortlisted titles I've read. Barnes's novella is to my mind a minor classic.
The evidence of Barnes's mastery is there right from the title. I remember being struck, when reading one of Barnes's earlier novels, Talking It Over, by the way in which the title gradually took on a meaning radically different from what might have been anticipated: it might be supposed that people talk things over in order to make sense of them, to reach a more accurate understanding of them. However, it became clear that the alternating narrators of Talking It Over found themselves, whether or not deliberately, complicating the meaning of events and experiences by narrating them: talking things over became strangely similar to covering things over, or papering over awkward cracks.
Similarly, The Sense of an Ending is a title which begins to swim before the reader's eyes. The narrator, Tony, this time well into middle age, is, again, thinking things over. This time there is at least a double ambiguity: the "ending" can be taken to be death itself, or, more vaguely, the way various things turn out. And the sense of an ending is both the premonition of death, and of the fact that life is less and less likely to change radically towards its end, as one gets older - and also the need to make sense, retrospectively, of past events, including the death of Adrian, an old schoolfriend of the narrator's.
The most important event in the novel ostensibly appears to be the fact that Adrian started going out with Tony's ex-girlfriend, Veronica, during their final year at different universities and, encouraged by Veronica, sought Tony's benediction of the relationship. The reply sent by Tony is dealt with fairly obliquely in the first part of the novella ("As far as I remember, I told him pretty much what I thought of their joint moral scruples.") But then a photocopy of the letter falls into his hands over forty years later, and this time is given reproduced in full. It is one of the most devastatingly cruel letters imaginable: sour grapes at their most unpleasantly acidic.
And it seems that most of the narrator's later disillusionment and remorse revolves around that incident. Except that he is, towards the end, forced to start making sense of something which he had never suspected...
The conclusion has been felt by many to be unsatisfactory and implausible. I can imagine Julian Barnes receiving numerous letters asking him whether we are supposed to understand that Adrian in fact... And I can imagine the smile on his face as he reads them (and perhaps answers them...) But of course Barnes is not going to give any answers - any more than he chose to complete the sentence "So, for instance, if Tony" at the end of the isolated page from Adrian's diary.
Much speculation has appeared on the Booker site. Did Adrian...? Did Tony...? But when the penultimate section of the novel - the one where the narrator finally says "I got it" - is read carefully, I think the reader gets it too. In other words:
Veronica's mother Sarah ("making a secret horizontal gesture") tried to seduce Tony, her daughter's boyfriend. The broken eggs in the frying pan seem to symbolize a certain lackadaisical waywardness on her part. And she later succeeded in seducing her daughter's next boyfriend, Adrian, and thereafter giving birth to a handicapped child.
The clues, when the reader looks back carefully, are there, notably when the schoolboys speculate about Adrian's separated parents and one of them (we never learn which one, and it doesn't matter) says "Maybe your mum has a young lover?" Of course, this is a reference to Adrian's mother, not Mrs Ford; nevertheless, the possiblity of toyboy lovers is clearly posited.
We also learn that Mrs Ford, widowed, as far as we can determine, around the age of fifty, moved to London and "took in lodgers, even though she'd been left well provided for." Possibly to keep her emotional and sexual options open in seventies London...
******END OF SPOILER ALERT******
But, in the end, surely the point is that we can never be absolutely and totally sure about anything...
I said earlier that I found the novel "not quite" immaculate, and that's because of the
hair-raising trips in Veronica's car towards the end. It's a slightly heavy-handed way of indicating that Veronica is in fact more damaged than Tony realised.
******END OF SPOILER ALERT******
And another couple of minor quibbles:
* Tony's letter, written in the late sixties, refers to Veronica as "a control freak". Was that phrase around then? Isn't it an anachronism?
* The metaphorical "ice flow" on page 132 [UK edition] should be an "ice floe".
But, all in all, The Sense of an Ending is a deeply moral novel about the need to make sense of one's actions, and the need to face up to the consequences of actions which may have seemed inconsequential, or inexplicable, initially. Time, the novel makes clear, catches up on people. Irresponsible actions come home to roost. Similar points were made, with similar elegance and mastery, in John Banville's The Sea.
The whole things clocks in, allowing for the blank pages, at only 145 pages. But I reckon it a far superior work to the longer novels which were shortlisted - just as Banville's The Sea was far superior to Ishiguro's vastly overrated Never Let Me Go six years ago.