The Sense of an Ending
by Julian Barnes (2011)
Knopf (2011)
163 pp

This year I completed four of the books shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize: Snowdrops, The Sisters Brothers, Half-Blood Blues (reviews here, here, and here, respectively) — and the only one of those I felt should be on the shortlist was Half-Blood Blues — and Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending. I tried the other two shortlisted books, Pigeon English and Jamrach’s Menagerie, giving up on each after I realized that I had no interest in finishing them. For the most part, then, to me an off-year for the Booker (others have praised the shortlist as the best ever). The off-year was made all the worse when some of the judges took offense to criticism, pulling attention from the books to the judges’ own sense of indignation. Even moments before the award was announced, in her speech Chair Stella Rimington was still harping on about the criticism and her pride that this shortlist has sold better than any in history, but she barely mentioned the shortlisted books generally and didn’t ever mention them by name (you can read the speech here).

Yes, for the most part, an off-year, but with one glowing exception: The Sense of an Ending won. It is a wonderful book — short, subtle, thoughtful, not only readable but re-readable. Let’s move on from the fiasco (for a moment) and focus on the winning title. It deserves it.

This is a short book (just over 150 pages) in two finely controlled parts. Our narrator is Anthony Webster (Tony). He’s in his sixties, he was married once and is still on friendly terms with his ex-wife (she might be only friend), and he’s proud that his daughter has turned out as well as she did, even if they don’t talk as much as he’d like. Part 1 focuses on a few key relationships and events from forty years ago that have recently arisen to haunt the sixty-year-old narrator, causing the narrator to think thoughts such as these:

Had my life increased, or merely added to itself? [. . . .] There had been addition — and subtraction — in my life, but how much multiplication? And this gave me a sense of unease, or unrest.

So as Tony is attempting to grappling with his past, he lays these particular memories out before us. From the beginning Tony is forthright about the fallibility of his mind, how much his memories may be inadequate or self-serving or even false. After listing a few vestigial images, he says, “This last isn’t something I actually saw, but what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.”

The first central memory deals with the time when Tony was in school. He had two best friends named Colin and Alex, and when Adrian Finn moved in Adrian automatically and inexplicably became the fourth. They were all smart, but Adrian is clearly ahead of them all, a true philosopher at heart. For example, once they were together in history class, debating the knowability of history, and Adrian came up with this apt definition: “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.” Obviously, Tony has already told us that the nature of memory is central to this story; documentation will spur the action in Part 2.

The second key memory in Part 1 comes after school is done. The four friends have moved on, and Tony’s attention is spent on his first girlfriend, Veronica. I’m going to be honest here: I don’t know how to write about Veronica. In Part 2, Barnes not only shows how Tony’s own memory of events can change, but he also changes the way we see (and feel about) Part 1. I don’t mean he “recasts” what has already been told, or not only that anyway; I love it when authors do that, but Barnes goes further because the reader is complicit. I’m just at a loss here regarding Veronica, whom Tony’s ex-wife calls “the Fruitcake” — well, perhaps that says enough about how Tony remembers her.

Tony’s relationship with Adrian and Veronica are central, and they lead to a quiet tragedy that took place forty years ago. In Part 2, in the present day, Veronica’s mother has died and left Tony a diary. It’s been forty years since Tony was with Veronica, and the only contact he had with her mother was during the only weekend trip he took to visit Veronica’s family. Why she is leaving him a diary, he has no idea. When Tony receives word from the solicitor that Veronica has taken the diary and refuses to let him have it, Tony tries to figure out a way to get it (some documentary corroboration). He doesn’t realize how much this is going to change who he thinks he is, and it leads him to think quite badly (perhaps quite rightly) of himself:

And so, for the first time, I began to feel a more general remorse — a feeling somewhere between self-pity and self-hatred — about my whole life. All of it. I had lost the friends of my youth. I had lost the love of my wife. I had abandoned the ambitions I had entertained. I had wanted life not to bother me too much, and had succeeded — and how pitiful that was.

I love that last sentence. How well Barnes manages to imbue simple sentences with deep emotions. It reminds me of when he wrote, “I don’t belive in God, but I miss him.” These two sentences alone are clear proof that literary writing does not mean “impenetrable,” as the critics say (though it can). In these, Barnes presents a simple thought, and then undercuts it with another simple phrase, but that undercutting and the resulting combination show a complexity of feeling and thought that many writers could not articulate in a page.

So Tony begins to see the past a bit differently. Strangely, this doesn’t just mean he remembers things in a new light; rather, he remembers things he’d long forgotten.

For years you survive with the same loops, the same facts and the same emotions. I press a button marked Adrian or Veronica, the tape runs, the usual stuff spools out. The events reconfirm the emotions — resentment, a sense of injustice, relief — and vice versa. There seems no way of accessing anything else; the case is closed. Which is why you seek corroboration, even if it turns out to be contradiction. But what if, even at a late stage, your emotions relating to those long-ago events and people change?

Barnes’ two-part novel enacts that very idea: what happens to memory when emotions change? We learn more about the past as Tony does, and our impressions of what went on in Part 1 change a great deal. As I said, and I don’t think everyone will have this same experience, but it made me feel strongly for Veronica. Tony had a memory buried in resentment that came to the surface as the resentment dissipated:

My brain must have erased it from the record, but now I knew it for a fact. She was there with me. We sat on a damp blanket on a damp riverside holding hands; she had brought a flask of hot chocolate.

It’s that flask of hot chocolate; it reveals, subtly, that she valued their relationship, tried to nurture it, tried to prepare simple pleasures with her hands. The book doesn’t stop its revelations there, but I shall. One thing I promise: Barnes doesn’t go the easy route and help us discover that Tony remembered things all wrong and now this new stuff is the way it was. Some have complained that the book is too ambiguous. It doesn’t solve itself; it just reveals complexities and shakes certainty.

Before ending this post, I wanted to also bring up the book’s tone. Barnes is, in some ways, presenting an essay on memory, but this is also a book about loss, particularly the loss of time. All of this is leading to death and what the life that just ended meant anyway.

The Sense of an Ending is a fabulous book. There are layers and layers that I didn’t even touch on here but that I am certain will be with me for some time. Highly recommended.

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