The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Julian Barnes was  born in Leicester, England, in 1946.  He now lives in London.  He is the author of several books of stories, essays and also a translation of Alphonse Daudet’sIn the Land of Pain, and numerous novels.   His publications include ” The Sense of an Ending” which was published  in 2011.  I chose this book because it was recommended by my local library.  I had never read anything by this author before.  Nior did I know that Barnes won the Man Booker Prize for this novel T”he Sense of an Ending”.   He has also received the Sunday Times Award for Literary Excellence in 2013 so I expercted great things. 

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This is a concise yet open-ended book.  The narrator of this Booker longlisted new novella, Tony Webster,  has made that not unreasonable assumption, that by the act of revisiting his past in later life he challenges his core beliefs about causation, responsibility and the very chain of events that make up his sense of self.

Tony Webster is resigned to his ordinariness.  He is even satisfied with it, in a strange way.  In some ways, his life has been a success.  He had a career followed by comfortable retirement, an amiable enough, if not passionate, marriage and then a reasonably amicable divorce.  He has one child, a daughter, whom he has seen safely into her own domestic security. However, on harsher inspection, he feels he had not wanted life to bother him much, and is disappointed to note he succeeded in that.  

The author is brutally incisive on the diminishments of age.  Now that the sense of his own ending is coming into focus, Tony apprehends that the very puropse of our lives is to reconcile us to its eventual loss.  The character believes he has already experienced the first death: that of the possibility of change.

But like most of us, Tony has carried his youth inside him into adulthood.  It is fixed in his vivid memory. Looming largest in his personal mythology is his brilliant, tragic, schoolfriend Adrian.   It is a solicitor’s letter informing him that, 40 years on, he has been left Adrian’s diary in a will, that sets Tony to examine what he perceives his life has been.  For any of us looking back 40 years our own version of the truth is always coloured, for good or ill by the passage of time.  Barnes character, Tony is no different in that.

The novella divides into two parts, the first being Tony’s memoir of “book-hungry, sex-hungry” sixth form days, and the painful failure with his first girlfriend at university:  the enigmatic Veronica. He paints a portrait of awkwardness and repression of the time.  

The second section undermines the veracity of these memories, as Tony reopens his relationship with Veronica, a woman he had previously edited out of his life story.  When they first met he had pretended to his ex-wife  that Veronica had never existed.   

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Barnes builds a powerful atmosphere of shame and silence around the past as Tony tries to track down the elusive diary, which promises, as missing diaries tend to do, some revelation or closure.   In a book obsessed with evidence and documentation:  verification for unreliable, subjective memory, the most powerful depth charge turns out to be something Tony has kept from himself for 40 years.   So, Barnes puts the rest of the narrative, and his unreliable yet sincere narrator, tantalisingly into doubt. 

Barnes excels at colouring everyday reality with his narrator’s unique subjectivity, without sacrificing any precision.  He invests a discussion about hand-cut chips in a gastropub with poignancy.

With patterns and repetitions, scrutinising workings from every possible angle, this novella is a highly wrought meditation on ageing, memory and regret.   However, it does give as much resonance to what is unknown and unspoken and lost to memory, as it does to its own plot. 

I will certainly look out for other works by Julian Barnes and commend this short book.  It is a creditable piece of work.

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1 Comment

  1. Reblogged this on normanjkennedy.

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