The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Kevin from Canada aptly calls this “a memory book.” As with The Last Brother, our narrator is an old man, reasonably well-situated in life who is looking back as, at his age, that’s where most of the action is. In both books, the narrator struggles to make sense of the past (hence the title on this one), but Barnes is a bit more interesting. The unfolding of events in The Last Brother are a mystery to the reader, but the narrator knows all the pertinent details. Raj tells his story, struggles with it emotionally, but he knows as much of the story at the beginning as we will by the end.

In Barnes’ Booker-winning novel, Tony Webster is as ignorant as the reader regarding crucial facts. This hole in Tony’s memory-knitted past gives his story intrigue in addition to the foreboding and urgency created where the narrator knows but the reader does not. The technique also allows Barnes to delve deeper into the human experience than, say, Appanah does in The Last Brother. While emotions run quite high in The Sense of an Ending and are important, emotions are not the primary theme. The theme is the interplay of memory and the construction of a life narrative.

In this aspect, the work reminded me most of The Underpainter, Urquhart’s outstanding, Governor General’s Award-winning novel. The narrator is flawed and, only belatedly, comes to realize how deeply flawed he is.

Despite this similarity of theme, The Underpainter and The Sense of an Ending they do not till the same soil. The two novels engage in very perceptive examinations of slightly different facets of the life as narrative theme. Importantly, Austin Fraser from The Underpainter had a single-minded focus on his passion, his art. His troubles reconciling the past stem from that focus. Tony Webster’s problems stem from turning inward. He has not pursued any great passion, he hasn’t the excuse of art. Rather, he erred by turning inward, by paying too close attention to the story of his life.

That is not to say that events primarily happen to him, as in The Last Brother. Tony has actively participated in shaping the past that looms so importantly in his present. The difference in the three approaches is vital to understanding what separates Barnes’ and Urquhart’s novels from Appanah’s. The Sense of an Ending and The Underpainter are attempts to capture how we reconcile altered emotions and/or revelatory facts with the fiction of our lives. Even acknowledging the extent to which our remembered pasts are fiction shakes something central in us. The Last Brother, by contrast, is more like history, biography, fact; the book reveals facts that cannot change and, in important ways, could not have been changed.

Part of this disconnect is that The Last Brother involved a nine-year old. Mistakes by our nine-year old selves are, mostly, easily forgivable. Even where we might have trouble forgiving ourselves, others generally do not. Children are simply not sufficiently developed at that age to have the same culpability for their actions adults have. Beyond that, it is not clear that any different choices by Raj would have changed any of the tragedies that befell him and those around him.

Tony was a man, though, and he made choices. This is not to say that the book is interesting because Tony can be judged for his errors. The theme, again, is memory and how we tell stories about ourselves to ourselves. While there is narrative pull in finding out what happened, the truly engaging aspect of the novel is the examination of the pillars of our self-image, and what happens if those pillars crumble.

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…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?

Taking the statement as a logical proposition, if the emotions associated with the events change, the events must be reconsidered, altered. The life we remember is not, after all, the life we have lived. A new narrative must patch the rip in the fabric formerly weaving emotion and events together. Barnes masterfully explores this reconciliation in ways that I have not quite seen before. As I said, The Underpainter comes closest (and is in some ways better), but Barnes has moved the stakes of the subject outward a smidge.

This book will be formidable in the TOB 2012 brackets. It earned its top seed and should live up to it. I have a hard time imagining anything other than another one-seed or The Tiger’s Wife keeping it out of the pre-Zombie final four. The book is too good, the characters too strong, too real, for some other book to sneak an early-round victory. I love the book and I like its chances.

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21 Responses to The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

  1. Amy says:

    I loved this book. But I have to wonder if there’d be a generational divide on this one. I’m at an age where I can see the whole book playing out just like this, but if I was still in my college days, I wonder if I’d be more inclined to think, “No way.” I also liked how spare the book is–Barnes didn’t stretch the story out to get to a more conventional length. It’s just as long as it needs to be.

    • Kerry says:

      Kevin (from Canada) wondered about the generational divide. I am, technically, of a later generation than the narrator and Kevin, and I thought it was excellent. But, I am still at (over or under, depending on age) the midway point of an “average” lifespan, so maybe I am just old enough to appreciate the looking back aspect of more advanced years.

      Like you, I love that it is a tight, concise novel that packs, I thought, some real heft. It is just as long as it needs to be (which is shorter than even “163 pages” suggests).

      • Amy says:

        There’s a local book club here, Books and Bars, that’s a moderated group and draws a wide variety of ages. Two recent selections, Freedom and Swamplandia!, drew very different responses from the different age groups. I wonder what this book would do.

  2. Wilson Knut says:

    Barnes’ writing drew me in, but to me the book as a whole felt like a character sketch on the idea of an unreliable narrator. Some of the details, like Tony forgetting his scathing letter to the friend he idolized, seemed a bit of a stretch to me. And if a girl told me multiple times through life that I just didn’t get it, I would say please explain it to me. I’m begging you. Explain it. Overall, I thought it read like a writing exercise that was technically well done, but unfinished. However, most people have given it raving reviews.

    It’s paired in the first round of the TOB with THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME, which I’m reading now. It is brutal. The characters are deranged in a David Lynch meets Rob Zombie in West Virginia kind of way. The two books couldn’t be more different. Emma Straub is the judge. Her Tumblr says she likes cats. Bad things happen to cats in THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME. I’m guessing THE SENSE OF AN ENDING advances.

    • Kerry says:

      When you say “Tony forgetting his scathing letter”, I don’t recall it that way. Perhaps I am missing something, but I recall him I early in the book (p. 46) recounting it.

      As far as I remember, I told him [in the letter] pretty much what I thought of their joint moral scruples. I also advised him to be prudent, because in my opinion Veronica had suffered damage a long way back. Then I wished him good luck, burnt his letter in an empty grate…and decided that the two of them were now out of my life for ever.

      He then ruminates over what he meant by “damage”. He doesn’t remember the details, but that seems right. He more or less remembers the tone, though, as it turns out, his memory of the intensity has faded a bit. It can be revelatory to read something you’ve written even a few years ago, much less decades. I guess what I am saying in long-winded fashion is that I didn’t have that same problem.

      I do get your complaint that we never see Tony asking Veronica to explain what it is he doesn’t get. But, Tony is “peaceable” as he often reminds us, so he stays silent rather than probe to avoid conflict. But that is going a bit extreme, after the repetition. I would only say, I think occasionally he thinks he does understand when she says he doesn’t. As if, “Ahhh, I see. My bad.” Only, he really still doesn’t get it.

      I love your synopsis of The Devil All the Time vs. The Sense of an Ending match. Made me laugh. And I think you are right.

  3. ttwsglen says:

    If it counts for anything, I’m in my mid-thirties and I didn’t get much out of the book. It was a concise and enjoyable enough character-study with some interesting ruminations on memory and history, but I don’t think it went much beyond that. I did find myself wondering at the end if I might appreciate this more in 30 years.

    I wonder if Lightning Rods could upset it in the TOB 2nd round. Dewitt’s satire of American corporate culture, gender, and sexuality was a risky move, but it worked. It gave the reader a lot to chew on in the classic sense of satire.

    • Kerry says:

      It definitely counts for something. Maybe Kevin’s and Amy’s intuition is correct, generation does matter. Maybe I am old enough that I am starting to ruminate a bit on memory and personal history myself. That might make a difference.

      I haven’t read Lightning Rods and I wasn’t sure if I would. I am still not sure, but I will try to get to it before its eliminated as you obviously think it is a risky book that worked. Thanks for that and for the comment generally.

  4. Tony, like most of us, does have a way of selectively “forgetting” some of the things that he has done in the past. And given that he has a pretty high “avoidance” quotient in his life anyway, he probably has more of those forgotten moments than most of us do.

    That is why I think it is important that this book be regarded as a “memory” book — those who are frustrated by it simply want more certainty from the author than his narrator can handle. I do think that that is where the generational divide in readers plays out. Some of us are old enough to understand the reality of that contradiction.

    I have said elsewhere that the novel should be regarded as a 320-page book — it deserves to be read twice. I’m not sure ToB judges will feel that way but I would still expect it to go through at least the early stages.

    • Kerry says:

      Very well put, Kevin. I hope it makes it through a few rounds. Not least because I am interested in the judges’ and commentators’ takes on it.

      • I saw someone call it a rereadable readable book. I agree — says she hopping in late to this discussion because I’ve only just finally got around to reading it.

      • Kerry says:

        Add me to the re-readable club on this one. The way the truth slowly emerges makes earlier details important the significance of which I am sure I did not catch the first go round. The novel is definitely carefully constructed, which means a re-read guarantees additional surprises, like little gargoyles in unexpected places in a old cathedral.

        Any visit from you is always right on time. These are all extended conversations, I hope.

  5. Justine says:

    Intriguing … do I have to read The Underpainter and The Last Brother to properly engage with this book?? Your comparison of the texts seems to have really guided your reading.

    • Kerry says:

      You certainly do not have to. I just found myself (having just read The Last Brother) thinking alot about fellow TOB contender The Last Brother and the parallels (and differences) between Barnes’ work and The Underpainter (one of the newest additions to my all-time favorites list) intrigued me. I thought The Sense of an Ending had been covered enough independently prior to my review that I could indulge in the comparisons in an effort to explain what I thought was original and done well in The Sense of an Ending.

    • Amy says:

      Justine, I haven’t read either Underpainter or Last Brother yet, and I loved the Barnes.

  6. Sarah says:

    I didn’t engage with this book as much as others have (but I do have an ongoing date with Proust, the subtlety of whom, in the matter of memory, is probably unsurpassed.)

    I was sometimes unconvinced by the ways in which the unreliability of memory manifested, and I was more inclined to take Tony as merely an unreliable narrator. To some extent all narrators are unreliable as a consequence of memory and experience so this isn’t a theme which was going to catch my unbridled enthusiasm.

    Thematic ambition aside I can’t fault Barnes’ writing, and I do think he will do well in the TOB. Like you I loved Wilson’s skit. It would be wonderful if Emma Straub surprised us.

    • Kerry says:

      Sarah,

      I should be beaten with a Proust stick daily until I succumb and begin the process of reading it.

      Maybe I was too naive in my reading, I was willingly convinced by the unreliability of memory. Perhaps my memory is awful and, so, I assume any number of important things can be forgotten? I hope that’s not it.

  7. Emsie says:

    As I see it, the bottom line on Julian Barnes’ book, the key to understanding what happens and the way in which it is not solely a book about memory or the account of an unreliable narrator, would be Adrian’s reference to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand that began WWI. That reference points to the unpredictable contingencies of history, for that assassination, by a Yugoslavian nationalist, set into play a horrible and unintended set of consequences, primarily through a series of treaties involving Europe and their colonies and allies, which resulted in the slaughter of over 35 million people.

    Adrian’s “A + B . . . ” formula and his diary entry “If only Tony . . .” might lead one to conclude that Tony played an unwitting role in an unintended contingency, a horrible coincidence–not on an historic scale, but on the personal. It was Adrian’s understanding of the true nature of that contingency that caused him to commit suicide, not because he was too upset to go on living or anything of that muddled sort, but in order to eliminate himself from a chain of causality that was both unpredictable and tragic. And Tony was unknowingly at the heart of that contingency. (Nor could he have known that he was, if I’m reading this correctly.)

    The original “Sense of an Ending” was written by the critic Frank Kermode. His piece had to do with “the way we think about history and the way we ‘impose form on time.'” That is the subject of Barnes’s book, as well.

    The only way to deal with Barnes’s extraordinary book is to take it apart analytically and then put it back together. Those readers who want the author to do all the work for them seem to hate it. Others see its brilliance and carry that away with them. The real hit, however, comes only after a lengthy analysis. Many people have said they had to read it twice to “get it.” I had to think about it for a couple of days, going back to the book again and again until I finally felt I had it.

    • Kerry says:

      Brilliant analysis, Emsie.

      The history discussion earlier in the book is the key to understanding the whole of the text. Is history the story of the survivors, as gets said at one point (I forget if early or late in the novel)? Tony (I think it was) had that right. Survivors try to make order out of past events, tragic or otherwise. Tony was the unwitting key “at the heart of that contingency” as you so excellently put it, and Adrian opted out (thereby, increasing the tragedy which Tony unknowingly set in motion).

      (And Tony could not have known that he was at the heart of that contingency, not practically, at least. He could not have known the later consequences of his letter any more than the assassin of the Archduke could have foreseen the trench warfare and millions of lives lost in what would become WWI.)

      Thank you for adding to my appreciation of this outstanding book. The Sense of an Ending deserves a re-read in my future. I really appreciate your sharing that, I will say it again, brilliant analysis. Bravo.

  8. […] here, Kevin of KevinfromCanada here, John Self of theasylum here, Kerry of Hungry Like the Woolf here, Tom of Tomcat in the Red Room here (and if you don’t know Tom’s blog you should, […]

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