Review: The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes

>>Published: August 2011

>>Finally got around to it: August 2012

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.

Also, when you are young, you think you can predict the likely pains and bleaknesses that age might bring. You imagine yourself being lonely, divorced, widowed; children growing away from you, friends dying. You imagine the loss of status, the loss of desire—and desirability. You may go further and consider your own approaching death, which, despite what company you may muster, can only be faced alone. But all this is looking ahead. What you fail to do is look ahead, and then imagine yourself looking back from the future point. Learning the new emotions that time brings. Discovering, for example, that as witnesses to your life diminish, there is less corroboration, and therefore less certainty, as to what you are or have been. Even if you have assiduously kept records—in words, sounds, pictures—you may find that you have attended to the wrong kind of record-keeping. What was the line Adrian used to quote? ‘History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.’

***

Memory is a difficult matter. It’s intangible, even malleable, yet relied upon for definition—both of self and of others. With the passage of time, memories, despite our best efforts, fade and recede, wider and wider gaps appearing like tattered holes in a favourite sweater. In some cases, the process is accentuated through tragic genetic inevitabilities like Alzheimer’s or senility; in others, through denial and the inability to see beyond one’s self and individualized problems.

Julian Barnes’ Man Booker Prize winning novella, The Sense of an Ending, deals exclusively with memory and its associated pitfalls. The story is Tony Webster’s, cleaved between the friends and associations cultivated, and obliterated, during two defining times in his life: first as an arrogant, sex-starved teenager, in love with his own intellect and sense of humour; then as a retiree with a marriage, a divorce, and a successful career to his credit.

As a youth, Tony meets Adrian Finn—a quiet, highly intelligent young man deemed, by some, to be too clever for his own good. Adrian quickly falls in with Tony’s small, high-on-the-food-chain group, adding an austerity and a degree of condescension to their interactions. As years and their university careers pass, the small quartet is slowly divided, then ruptured entirely. As an adult, with Adrian and their falling out a part of his past, Tony, via an unexpected will, is once more brought into a world he thought he’d been freed from decades earlier. To add further reason for these plot turns would be to reveal too much.

The Sense of an Ending is a success. Barnes does not waste one page of this novella. The result is a prime example of effective economical story telling. Tony is an intriguing unreliable narrator—not because he is lying to the reader so much as he has, over decades, constructed a reality based in fact, but lightened through a fictional cheesecloth placed over past events:

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.

This novella is Tony’s education—his enlightenment through which he comes to understand the reality and impact of hateful actions made in haste during one’s youth. Though forty years have passed between the two halves of the novella, Tony, despite changes in his personal life, has clung to his emotional immaturity; he is too reliant on the wit and charm he can recall from his youth as being indicative of his supposedly inoffensive qualities as a man. It is a single event, however—a letter written in his twenties, from a place of hurt and anger—that undermines his evolution and forces him to re-examine the life he’s lived and his lingering effect on those once closest to him.

The novella format allows for a degree of breadth and investigation not typically afforded to short fiction, while at the same time maintaining an urgency and simplicity of execution. Barnes doesn’t necessarily take the time to construct adequate histories for side characters like Tony’s first girlfriend Veronica, rather he carefully positions them as signposts around which Tony’s trajectory is shunted. They are given enough back-story and detail to give the illusion of depth, while the story’s focus remains firmly on Tony, his own particular sort of tunnel vision, and the slow pulling back of the curtain. Indeed the final pages of The Sense of an Ending offer revelations that encourage a second reading, without sacrificing believability or emotional impact for the sake of a sudden, shocking twist.

The Sense of an Ending is masterful story telling. Not since Amélie Nothomb’s Hygiene and the Assassin have I walked away from a novella so entirely satisfied. Highly recommended.

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