(First published by Johnathan Cape, Random House in 2011)
“How often do we tell our own life story?”
As winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2011, Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending is a short novel worthy of its critical acclaim and general praise. Barnes is a writer who continually enforces the idea of the ‘Human Flaw’ wherein our memories are unreliable and our pasts, ‘mutable’. It leads to not only likeable characters but characters that feel almost brutally honest and Tony Webster is no exception. A witty, fairly cynical and overall attractive character, we as the reader are drawn to him instantly. As a man of no importance, Webster’s is a first person narrative with no airs or graces. A brilliantly well-rounded and believable character , we are able to trust what he tells us even when he does not trust himself.
“I remember a period in late adolescence when my mind would make itself drunk with images of adventurousness. This is how it will be when I grow up. I shall go there, do this, discover that, love her, and then her and her and her. I shall live as people in novels live and have lived. Which ones I was not sure, only that passion and danger, ecstasy and despair (but then more ecstasy) would be in attendance. However...who said that thing about "the littleness of life that art exaggerates"? There was a moment in my late twenties when I admitted that my adventurousness had long since petered out. I would never do those things adolescence had dreamt about. Instead, I mowed my lawn, I took holidays, I had my life.”
The way in which Barnes sets up this ultimately unreliable narrative is fascinating and makes for an engaging read. The idea that ‘what you remember is not necessarily what you witnessed’ is addressed on the very first page and immediately throws in to question our own memories and how much we can even trust ourselves. This allows each turn of the page to be a reflection on our own school days or first sexual experience and is a strange but illuminating process.
“Later on in life, you expect a bit of rest, don't you? You think you deserve it. I did, anyway. But then you begin to understand that the reward of merit is not life's business.”
As we follow the memories of this man in his late sixties, we are taken back to his years at an all male sixth form and his first meeting of Adrian Finn, a boy with intelligence beyond his years who provides the stimulation for Tony’s life from then on. His feelings of inferiority and Adrian’s subsequent suicide throw into question whether or not Tony can in fact trust his recollections of his feelings at that time. At one point, Adrian states “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.” (quoting Patrick Lagrange). His complicated feelings for Adrian combined with his need for clarity within life resulted in constant insecurities throughout his adolescent and adult life which now lead him to believe that the way he felt at the time may not have been justified. This is something that reveals itself slowly and is the driving force behind the events of his life that unfold in the second half (and present tense portion) of the story.
The title of the book is also something that unfolds itself slowly. The original quote comes from a literary criticism book of the same name by Frank Kermode first published in 1966 , which analyses great works through the concept of apocalyptic thought. The idea that every writer writes because of an inherent need to leave ones ‘mark’ before they die. Therefore the idea of the ‘sense’ of an ending is intriguing as it raises questions about the art form of writing in its entirety. Where do our stories end? Is it past a certain age and if so when is that age determined? These are both highlighted and examined throughout the book although never really given an absolute answer.
The fact that Tony is revealing his past from the few point of a sixty-year-old man provides a further dimension of whether or not his mind is actually beginning to fail him anyway. His age also provides the idea that sixty is when one essentially stops living an exciting life but continues to live, therefore creating a ‘sense of death’. This is again highlighted by the idea that Adrian found ‘clarity’ in his early death, perhaps because he never grew old enough to have the same self-reflection. Barnes affirms this perspective by occasionally dropping what I would call ‘ life lessons’ throughout the novel. By this I mean phrases and sayings that we would usually attribute to someone who is old enough to have become thoroughly disillusioned with life. This is perhaps to the detriment of the novel as it occasionally feels like a platform for some of Barnes’ own ideals over those of Tony but highly interesting none the less. For example,
“Sometimes I think the purpose of life is to reconcile us to its eventual loss by wearing us down, by proving, however long it takes, that life isn't all it's cracked up to be.”
This, to a certain extent, absolutely compliments the themes of the novel beautifully and allows you to understand the reasons behind this man’s re-examining of his life and subsequent mistakes. However, it is easy to become rather bogged down in the mournful descent in to reliving a life misspent. The underlying idea behind this novel is that remembering is not the opposite of forgetting, but rather that the two intertwine to create the human idea of memory and at times this idea feels slightly drilled in to our heads. Having said that, Barnes’ humour is one that transcends the rather depressing idea that all life is essentially disappointing. He highlights certain elements of human behaviour, which will have even the most critical reader laughing. This is no clearer than in the passages concerning his sexual awakening with Veronica, his first real relationship and surprisingly the most influential character within the novel. As he reveals his constant struggles to sleep with her, we feel his growing frustration with the ‘free love’ movement of the sixties versus the failed attempts at sexual acts throughout his university years.
“ I expect such recreational behaviour will strike later generations as quite unremarkable, both for nowadays and for back then: after all wasn’t ‘back then’ the Sixties? Yes it was. But as I said, it depended on where – and who – you were. If you’ll excuse the brief history lesson, most people didn’t experience ‘The Sixties’ until the Seventies.”
Another undeniable factor of this novel is the purely poetic way in which Barnes forms his narratives. Having also read ‘Metroland’ (1980) and ‘The Lemon Table’ (2004) , also by Barnes, I have found his themes to be repetitive but never tired. He writes with such passionate understanding for his characters that it truly allows a reader to become invested in the story and become totally lost in the time and place in which the novels are set. It may be obvious to some, but something that really struck me whilst reading this novel was Barnes’ intelligence. Literary, of course, but also his unique way of presenting a protagonist as an upper-middle-class man, well read at Bristol University, without ever appearing patronising or arrogant, is impeccable. This brings me back to my original statement concerning Barnes and the ‘Human Flaw’. A factor I have always enjoyed about his writing is that fact that no matter who his characters are, they inevitably make mistakes. Granted, some are bigger than others but he never forgets that he is writing about people, not fantastical ideas of people. This is what allows his novels and novellas to be so universally popular. It would be easy for a man of such intelligence to alienate certain readers but he strives to make his works accessible, a trait greatly admired within modern writers.
Overall, I found this novel to be a stimulating read. It is not exciting plot twists that will have you turning the pages but a genuine interest in such a simple life, so wonderfully explained. The effortlessness of the story shines through and the effect is enchanting as it begs its reader to question their own lives thus far and thrusts before them the question of ‘ Can you really trust your own mind?’ but , more importantly, if it matters anyway. If our minds our saving us the pain of reality, do we want the absolute truth?