The Sense of an Ending Hardcover – August 1, 2011
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This book explores Tony Webster, his friends, and his meeting with Adrian Finn at school. They were all sex-crazed, book obsessed, and gawky as they traded off-color jokes, rumors, witty gossip, and wanking experiences. Adrian’s life turned to tragedy and they all moved on, trying to forget. Tony, now middle-aged, has a career, is once-divorced, seems to get along with ex-wife and daughter, and certainly has no desire to hurt anyone. But a lawyer’s letter, and an unexpected bequeathment that seems to be impossible to obtain, throws up a fog of past experiences and reflections that create hazy moments for me.
So here we have a prize-winning writer, author of several well-received books, with, in my mind, an obsession for turning phrases into indecipherable contemplation. Many words have been used to describe Barnes’s writing. Precise, dexterous, disturbing, insightful, elegiac, and provocative are just a few. His mother, deeming him as having too much imagination, complained that his first book was a “bombardment” of filth. Perhaps mother knows best.
I did not find this chronicle on getting old, struggling with memories, and being plagued with regret an easy or enjoyable read. So I crawl back to the cabbage patch and await the remarks from my erudite fellow reading club members to help me make some sense of it all.
Schuyler T Wallace
Author of TIN LIZARD TALES
Instead, it is intensely compelling and disturbing, a thought-provoking book that demands you reflect on your own life, your own past, your own memories.
The book is divided into two parts. That’s the kind of meaningless piece of information that normally alerts the reader of a review that the reviewer has nothing meaningful to say, but it is important here because the first part is a more or less straight forward account of a sequence of events in the narrator’s youth as he remembers them. The second part, almost twice as long as the first, is the narrator’s attempt to unravel the skein of memory and to reconcile reality both with memory and with what Faulkner once called “the irrevocable might-have-been.” And therein lies the book’s genius.
Memory is tenuous and all too unreliable, sometimes even recent memory. It is the secular reason why I don’t believe in the death penalty (I also have religious objections): it is all too easy for memory to deceive us, to trick us into believing A when it was really B all along. I was once involved in a criminal police investigation and asked to give certain information. When it came to describing the suspect’s car, I answered with great certainty that it was brand new and bright red. I remember the blank looks on officers’ faces. The suspect’s car was brand new and bright blue. I had seen it, I had seen it clearly. I had even stood looking at it for several minutes, but because it was a new model, magazines were filled with ads, and television commercials ran on every network, showing bright red models and memory had conflated the two in my mind.
In the same way, one of the key points in The Sense of an Ending hinges on a letter which the narrator remembers one way in Part One, but which we—and he—discover in Part Two to have been very different than his memory would have it. (The phrasing of that sentence should give you a clue to what the reality was.)
The letter is pivotal because the narrator believes it to have set off a sequence of events he deeply regrets, and he is forced to reexamine his own story of himself. And that is what Barnes is asking us to do, to determine if the history of our lives is accurate, or if we have made convenient cuts and edits, or perhaps added a few cunning and subtle embellishments over the years, to diminish this painful reality here or that uncomfortable truth over there. We all long to be a little better than we are, and the stories of our lives, the stories we tell ourselves and others, reflect that longing, consciously or unconsciously.
In Atonement, Ian McEwan’s central character wants desperately to undo something she did as a child, something she too deeply regrets, and that novel ends with recognition of the futility of trying to change the past. We do terrible things, sometimes, intentionally or unintentionally, and we must learn to live with the consequences of those mistakes. Julian Barnes is also writing about living with consequences, about living with ourselves as we really are, and his narrator, like the narrator of Atonement, finally accepts that. But unlike the narrator of Atonement, Barnes’ narrator does not deliberately create a lie to satisfy his longing, unless you consider pushing the past aside—storing it in an unused closet of the mind—a kind of lie. Instead, his encounter with the reality of the past is thrust upon him and he must slowly come to grips with what really was, some of which may have been partially his own doing, some of which was not.
As long as I’m comparing the two novels, I find Ian McEwan’s writing to be much more emotionally engaging than Julian Barnes’. I read somewhere once that Barnes’ brother is a philosopher, and I can readily believe it because that kind of detached, cerebral quality permeates everything I have read by Barnes, including The Sense of an Ending. That is not to be construed as praise: I find the absence of emotional engagement and sensory detail off-putting, though I have no way of knowing if that is intentional on the author’s part or not. As my friend Dan Bronson (Confessions of a Hollywood Nobody) likes to say about writing (quoting Herman Melville’s letter to Nathaniel Hawthorn discussing writing): “I stand for the heart. To the dogs with the head! I had rather be a fool with a heart than Jupiter Olympus with his head.” Atonement is packed with such empathetic characters, including the little girl who ruins the lives around her, that you ache for them all. The Sense of an Ending has characters whose personalities are so reserved as to make them almost unknowable, and whose motivations and emotions we never fully understand, while the narrator, Tony, is completely emotionless in a frightfully British, stiff upper lip sort of way, so that at the end, when a bombshell is set off in what he thinks he understands about his life and actions and the memories of those two things, he simply ruminates on the advantages of thin chips (French fries) over fat ones. That’s not the best way to stir emotions in a reader either.
And yet… I have never before read a book straight through twice in a row, so clearly something in me was engaged, perhaps not by my heartstrings, but engaged nonetheless.
Top international reviews
Julian Barnes celebrates the fluidity of the displaced and disruptive voice of a man who, according to Veronica, 'never gets it, and never will'. 'Time', the story spells out, 'is not a fixative - it's a solvent'. Events deliquesce and memories melt through bizarre Oedipal shifts; time warps across vast biographical distances and then collapses into a short anecdotal account of some vague sense of what might be true, or what can be 'got' from Adrian's cryptic equation. The disturbing interflux between historical certainty and the unreliable accumulation of memories makes this a totally compelling read, and if you feel let down by the sense of an ending on p.151, that's precisely, I suspect, what Barnes wants us to feel. Scratch your head into the early hours as you try to work it all out if you want, or, better, turn your watch over and think about it again while you're flipping over the fried eggs in the morning.
I am delighted to have read this book and will remember certain elements for a very long time.
All the main characters are excruciatingly unpleasant and, on the whole, thoroughly boring people, and this is where Julian Barnes shines: without undue sentimentality, he makes us care about what happened to these people, and we end up feeling desperately sorry for them. And, since every single one of us must have done something mean or shameful in our past, we might not like it but, if we're honest with ourselves, we will end up also identifying with the characters here. I didn't think it was ever about whether guilt can justifiably be felt for something other people did 40 years before. It was, I thought, about how we all screw up without meaning to do so, and we live with the consequences the best we can.
I can't praise this novel highly enough. As a worthy Man Booker winner, it does one extra thing very well: it shows that to be full-on literary, fiction doesn't need to be difficult to read, annoying or pretentious. Short and certainly not sweet, 'The Sense of an Ending' shows us all how it's done.
`Not a novel'
`46,000 words is a novella'
Those are direct quotes from rejection letters about my first (go at writing a) novel. I mention this simply because The Sense of an Ending, at 150 pages, is about 46,000 words long, I reckon, give or take, which means by (those literary agents') definition it's not a novel, it's a novella. So presumably those same agents would take issue with the committee for the Mann Booker Prize - "no short stories or novellas" - who conferred the award on Barnes' book in 2011.
Tony Webster is a retired Arts Administrator, divorcee, and grandfather of two. He's on good terms with his ex-wife and gets on well enough with his daughter. He's a member of the local history society and runs the library at the local hospital as a volunteer. In other words, his life is entirely ordinary and unremarkable.
Into his ordinary life drops a legacy, £500 from Mrs Sarah Ford, a woman Tony has met only once some forty years ago when he was a student dating her daughter, Veronica. Unsurprisingly he's puzzled; so when he discovers that Mrs Ford has also bequeathed him the diary of his old school friend, Adrian Finn, who subsequently dated Veronica before committing suicide - and that Veronica is withholding the diary - he's...puzzled, still. And so begins his campaign to extract from Veronica the diary and the story of why it was in Mrs Ford's possession.
For a small book, The Sense of an Ending packs a big philosophical punch, grappling with the meanings of truth, perception and memory. Is there such a thing as objective truth? If truth is subjective how to decide which perspective is most valid? What about those who don't survive to tell their tale? What if the survivors misinterpret or misremember? Tony, the sole narrator, presents his narrative as `my memory now of my reading then of what was happening at the time.' It's truth, his truth, and twice removed.
The plot is as multi-layered as the narrator's perspective; soon after Tony thinks he's solved the puzzle, Veronica tells him he still doesn't `get it'. But although the final revelation surprised me - I had to read it twice to be sure I'd `got it' - it didn't entirely satisfy. The gravitas of the final paragraph (`There is accumulation. There is responsibility...') feels insufficiently supported by Tony's tangential involvement. I appreciate it works intellectually - I `get' it fictionalises chaos theory, aka the butterfly effect (a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can cause a tornado in Texas) - but emotionally... I remain unconvinced.
Overall rating: ** (worth reading)
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Because the book is written in the first person, the author - as hero Tony Webster - presents us with some of his philosophies, which are interesting. Initially I didn't quite believe in his personality. He is a little too dispassionate and resigned to his lot. However this is later justified when it becomes clear that beneath the surface was a dream that he could mend things with his lost love, and for a while, that becomes an obsession.
In his comfortable relationship with his ex-wife, we can make an assumption that she would have liked more of him than he could have given, that even after their divorce, she would have accepted him back, if he could only have forgotten Veronica.
Julian Barnes does not spell everything out . The narrator doesn't know, and neither do we, why Veronica was as she was, whether she really loved Anthony (Tony) or Adrian, and, since she lost both of them, what effect this had on her. We don't know whether she was cold and manipulative, or abused, damaged and uncertain. We don't know why Tony's wife left him for another man, though she is obviously still fond of him. We don't know whether Veronica's mother was envious of her daughter and made advances to her boyfriends, or whether she herself was damaged and trying to escape from her own unsatisfactory marriage. We also don't know precisely when and why Adrian did what he did. There are least two revelations about this.
Apart from Tony himself, these characters are unknown to us and we see them only through his eyes. We don't know what happened to Veronica through forty years of her life, Throughout the book, Tony's opinions of the main protagonists and their motives are changing, and the author causes us to do the same - questioning how it was and why it was, right up to the end of the book. This makes it a very good `reading circle' read, because there is so much to speculate about.
It is a very readable book and deserves its Booker winner status.
Retired and in his sixties, Tony Webster has played safe, telling himself he was being mature when in fact he was just careful, and missing out on life in the process. The first part of the book recalls his friendship with the precociously brilliant schoolmate Adrian, and his attraction to the enigmatic Veronica. I like the portrayal of the more innocent and sexually uptight world of the 1960s which were in some ways less "Swinging" than people may now imagine. The "too-clever-by-half banter of Tony's public school sixth form is a little pretentious, but may be realistic.
The second part becomes more of a psychological thriller in which Tony tries to explore and come to terms with the repercussions of his triangular relationship with Adrian and Veronica. Barnes arouses a strong sense of tension and expectation but, although I did not manage to guess the denouement, the double twist at the end was something of a letdown. I was too unmoved by the characters to care about them enough.
For me, this book is about how time may distort memories, how in both history and private life, people may delude themselves to make life more bearable. It is also about how, as we approach the end of life, we tend to assess how we have lived - to this extent perhaps it will mean most to older people who have known irrevocable disappointment.
You need to read this book twice to grasp the care with which it is constructed and the full significance of many sentences, but I found the denouement did not satisfy me enough to want to do this. There is a rich field of debate as to what really happened to Adrian and Veronica and why, together with an assessment of the degree of Tony's guilt. I agree with those who argue that Tony's actions are never bad enough for him to bear a heavy blame, but perhaps it is one of the main points that quite trivial events may have disproportionately serious effects.
It could make a good A Level text, both as regards how the facts are revealed, and what they mean.
I would say this deserves praise for quality of prose and ideas, but loses its edge through a needlessly rather weak plotline.
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Tony is an ordinary guy who leaves his friends to go to University, where he meets a girl. The girl doesn't seem to like him that much, but Tony is apathetic and too lazy to dump her. Or that's how it seemed to me. This did ring true, however, as I saw many relationships at University between people who didn't really like each other, but felt the need to conform to expectations- you were only worth something if you had someone else. But this is something that angered me greatly. I'm sure that less cynical people could read this and enjoy the story on an intellectual level, but I struggled.
And so the book continues, in a similar slow and apathetic way. Tony gets married. Tony gets divorced. Nothing is there to make you like Tony and these parts of his life are insignificant and barely register.
The only actual plot is the suicide of Adrian, Tony's high school friend. Adrian was clever, superior to Tony, get elected to end his life, and this is the only time Tony seems to care about anything and thus he embarks on a mission to find out WHY.
The answer is revealed on the very last page. And even then the revelation is sketchy and half-hearted.
The story is there, the plot ideas were good. But there is no emotion. The book is cold and heartless. Clinical and DULL. It's like Julian Barnes sat down with a list of things that the Booker Prize committee were looking for in a winning book, and ticked them off one by one. There's no heart and no soul in this book or the characters, so I just never cared.