Note: this post is quote heavy, as you can see. it can be (for the most part) read without them; i just chose not to restrain myself.
“This was another of our fears: that Life wouldn’t turn out to be like Literature. Look at our parents–were they the stuff of Literature? At best, they might aspire to the condition of onlookers and bystanders, part of a social backdrop against which real, true, important things could happen. Like what? The things Literature was all about: love, sex, morality, friendship, happiness, suffering, betrayal, adultery, good and evil, heroes and villains, guilt and innocence, ambition, power, justice, revolution, war, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, the individual against society, success and failure, murder, suicide, death, God. […] Real literature was about psychological, emotional and social truth as demonstrated by the actions and reflections of its protagonists; the novel was about character developed over time.” (16)
What if that isn’t entirely true? Or what if it is; yet drawn in the most unexpected and subversive way? Julian Barnes upends many things in The Sense of an Ending. I feel like maybe he is giving Literature the finger and smirking while doing so, widening into a grin as he receives prestigious awards for doing it.
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
Alfred A. Knopf, 2011
hardcover, 163 pages
This intense new novel follows a middle-aged man as he contends with a past he has never much thought about—until his closest childhood friends return with a vengeance, one of them from the grave, another maddeningly present. Tony Webster thought he’d left all this behind as he built a life for himself, and by now his marriage and family and career have fallen into an amicable divorce and retirement. But he is then presented with a mysterious legacy that obliges him to reconsider a variety of things he thought he’d understood all along, and to revise his estimation of his own nature and place in the world.
A novel so compelling that it begs to be read in a single sitting, with stunning psychological and emotional depth and sophistication, The Sense of an Ending is a brilliant new chapter in Julian Barnes’s oeuvre. ~publisher’s comments.
Have you read a book you felt you should read? And not for a class, for a grade. We all have those. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes won the Man Booker prize this year. At 163 pages, I thought, “Why not?” I need to keep my literary self well nourished, don’t I? That must have been what I was thinking. Otherwise, I’m not sure what I was doing. The book was altogether a frustrating experience. And I hate that the more I think about it after, the more I admire the damn thing.
“We were book-hungry, sex-hungry, meritocratic, anarchistic. […] Yes, of course we were pretentious–what else is youth for?” (10-11)
The Sense of an Ending is about a middle-aged man revisiting his past and the beginning part, “1,” reads like a memoir.* Tony Webster has a story to tell, and one, you soon realize, with a particular focus, “Still, that’s all by the by. Annie was part of my story, but not of this story” (50). And as we continue in a shift to the present in 2 (the remainder of the book), it could be construed the story he was telling was to his then-wife Margaret. The shifting in an out of time and relationship and dialog is primary to the fabric of the novel. Barnes is flawless; his movement and what it illustrates is remarkably fluid.
“That’s one of the central problems of history, isn’t it, sir? The question of subjective versus objective interpretation, the fact that we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us.” (13)
In the present, Tony is visited by ghosts of the past, the very past he’d just been speaking about. The reader is led to confront the persons and memories in the present as Tony would, as one privy to the events as Tony knew them. Considering the intimacy of the portraiture, we temporarily forgive the reliability of the narrator. But as evidence and conversation and age come to light, Tony and Reader revisit what was thought to be known. And little surprise that a shift in perspective is necessary, reliability interrogated. We were warned all along with the contemplations on time, how history is recorded, on memory, and accumulation. But we are never warned how it might come together.
The Sense of an Ending has one of the best last sentences I have ever read.
“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. […] 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.” (102)
Tony Webster’s life shouldn’t make for good Literature. He is perhaps the most boring protagonist ever. He is painfully normal, from a young man who masturbates frequently to a middle-aged man who still depends on his ex-wife for emotional well-being. He admits to wanting more for himself in his youth, but finds his peaceable existence not unsatisfactory. He is tepid. The most passionate and mysterious time of Tony’s life comes into focus, and to what avail? No, Tony Webster’s life should not make for good Literature, but Julian Barnes makes him so. It is disgusting how well he does this. I even found Tony’s dealings with the Insurance company riveting. [and hate myself a little for it.]
“I’ve been turning over in my mind the question of nostalgia, and whether I suffer from it. I certainly don’t get soggy at the memory of some childhood knickknack; nor do I want to deceive myself sentimentally about something that wasn’t even true at the time–love of the old school, and so on. But if nostalgia means the powerful recollection of strong emotions–and a regret that such feelings are no longer present in our lives–then I plead guilty. I’m nostalgic for my early time with Margaret, for Susie’s birth and first years, for that road trip with Annie. And if we’re talking about strong feelings that will never come again, I suppose it’s possible to be nostalgic about remembered pain as well as remembered pleasure. And that opens up the field, doesn’t it? It also leads straight to the matter of Miss Veronica Ford.” (89)
“You just don’t get…You never did, and you never will.” Veronica repeatedly tells Tony over and over (past and present). I wanted to punch her in the face. Why? because I didn’t get it either. And I was worried I never would. And I’ve yet to, by the way. Veronica is an elusive memory, an elusive relationship, and never easily deciphered. She is a painful figure of the past, who, in the present, continues in much the same vein.
“There were some women who aren’t at all mysterious, but are only made so by men’s inability to understand them” (86). Veronica illustrates this beautifully. Tony doesn’t understand Veronica, his first serious relationship. However, his ex-wife Margaret feels she understands Veronica well enough, “She’s a fruitcake.” And this hard to dispute, actually. Even without Tony’s vague speculation that Veronica was “damaged” (46). And we come to use Margaret the same way Tony does, as the one who knows Tony well enough to make good objective assessments of the situation at hand. He tells her something, she runs it through a filter based in experience and returns with good advice. Not that he is obligated to take it.
“How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but–mainly–to ourselves.” (104)
The visit of his past intrigues Tony enough to pursue a sense of closure, to reconcile memory with actual event, and to finally make sense of an otherwise senseless act. The Reader who hasn’t thrown the book aside pursues the same ending—only to find a sense of it. However, the mystery is not as compelling as the discussion on time, history, memory, responsibility, and accumulation.
Like the very first page, which read’s like a scavenger hunt’s list, the novel returns us to impressions, to marked images, at the end. In the “search for for possible hidden complexities” (5) in all we had come to study and learn, we are left (if not returned) to a feeling that is unpretentiously ascribed to and by the novel. The ending might not be the tidy one you want, but what you will get is a perfect one.
If you’ve a few hours an afternoon, you may want to give The Sense of an Ending a go; especially you Writers, and readers of Literature, and anyone over age 55 who’ve had a few good experiences with Literature. I didn’t read the novel in a single sitting, though I think, since it is possible, it is the best course: The Sense of an Ending is an incredibly well-crafted piece and the elements move in a conversation best held close in mind from beginning to end.
Notes: I know this was a quote-heavy post. but for all the frustrations with unlikable characters and the occasional difficulty sussing interactions, the contemplations were interesting, if not endearing.
I survived. “He survived to tell the tale”–that’s what people say, don’t they? History isn’t the lies of the victors […] I know that now. It’s more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated.”(61)
“It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age: when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others.” (88)
What had Old Joe Hunt answered when I knowingly claimed that history was the lies of the victors? “As long as you remember that it is also the self-delusions of the defeated.” Do we remember that enough when it comes to our private lives? (133)
one of my favorite:
“When people say, “She’s a good-looking woman,” they usually mean, “She used to be a good-looking woman.” But when I say that about Margaret, I mean it. She thinks–she knows–that she’s changed, and she has; though less to me than to anybody else. Naturally, I can’t speak for the restaurant manager. But I’d put it like this: she sees only what’s gone, I see only what’s stayed the same. her hair is no longer halfway down her back or pulled up in a French pleat; nowadays it is cut close to her skull and the grey is allowed to show. Those peasanty frocks she used to wear have given way to cardigans and well-cut trousers. Some of the freckles I once loved are now closer to liver spots. But it’s still the eyes we look at, isn’t it? That’s where we found the other person, and find them still. The same eyes that were in the same head when we first met, slept together, married, honeymooned, joint-mortgaged, shopped, cooked and holidayed, loved one another and had a child together. And were the same when we separated.
But it’s not just the eyes. The bone structure stays the same, as do the instinctive gestures, the many ways of being herself. And her way, even after all this time and distance, of being with me.” (81)
* I dislike memoirs and was annoyed to be reading about someone with whom I had zero vested interest. I mean, that is why we read memoirs, right? out of curiosity of a particular person who had an interesting life? Barnes must be gleeful having won an award with Tony Webster.