‘The Sense of an Ending’ by Julian Barnes

2011,  150p.

Actually, I reviewed this book ages ago and forgot to post my review!

I’ll try hard not to put spoilers in this review, but …..

This is only a small book, although I hesitate to call it a novella as it covers a large amount of territory. (Whispering Gums has reflected on the qualities of a novella here) It was awarded the Booker Prize in 2011, where its brevity certainly sets it apart from the other thick books that have won it recently.

It is written in two parts.  The first part is a reflection written in the first person by Tony Webster, now divorced and retired, reminiscing about his final year of school.  Three, smart-alecky, academically pretentious boys were joined by a newcomer, Adrian Finn, who was smarter than all of them put together.  They left school, Adrian went to Cambridge while Tony went to Bristol, and he found himself a girlfriend, Veronica. The relationship didn’t last.  By now, the friendships had drifted off and other jobs and other relationships took over. Adrian and Veronica took up together and some time later Tony was jolted to learn that Adrian had killed himself.

In Part Two, life has gone on.  Many years later Tony receives a letter informing him that Veronica’s mother had left him some money and a diary. Why the bequest? he wonders. There had only been one brief, quizzical conversation between them one weekend when Tony visited her family.  The diary does not belong to Veronica’s mother, but instead  is Adrian Finn’s.  The transfer of the money goes smoothly, but Veronica resists giving him the diary.  After Tony confronts her, she gives him a fragment of a letter than he had written long ago, that he had forgotten completely.

A large part of this book is devoted to a reflection on time and memory, and the stories we tell ourselves.  Tony here is not so much an unreliable narrator, as an unconfident one.  He alerts us to his uncertainty from the start:

We live in time- it holds us and moulds us- but I’ve never felt I understood it very well.  And I’m not referring to theories about how it bends and doubles back, or may exist elsewhere in parallel versions.  No, I mean ordinary, everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly… And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time’s malleability.  Some emotions speed it up, others slow it down; occasionally, it seems to go missing- until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return. (p. 3)

Tony read history at Bristol, but at this time of his life he is far more concerned with life-narrative and how it we construct it.  He thinks back to a quote that Finn had offered in their sixth-form history class in response to their teacher’s question “What is history?” (Ah, how Carr-sian!) Finn cited a quote from a  (fictional) author, Patrick Lagrange that “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation“. (p. 17)

Tony is wracking his brain to recall writing the letter which has discomfited all the recollections that he has held onto of that time.  The “imperfections of memory” have met “the inadequacies of documentation”, but he finds only uncertainty.

I theorise- that something- something else- happens to the memory over time.  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 a contradiction. (p. 120)

The title of the book is The Sense of an Ending, and it’s truly only a ‘sense’ that you are left with.  Tony, too, thinks that he has found an ending to his story, but “there is unrest.  There is great unrest.”

I thought that I had reached the end of the book, and had my own certainty that I’d finished with the story.  In planning to write this post, I looked at a few other reviews in newspapers and blogs- only to find that perhaps I hadn’t finished it at all.  Read this review that explains the ending, then keep on going through the comments -ye Gods, 423 of them!- and the real cleverness of the book reveals itself.  It has sent me back to the start again!

[Written much later }I didn’t give it a score at the time of writing, and I have no idea now what I thought of it then. But obviously the ending passed me by completely, which can’t really be a good thing, can it?

4 responses to “‘The Sense of an Ending’ by Julian Barnes

  1. Thanks for the link Janine.

    The ending. Good question. I don’t think an ending passing you by is necessarily bad, but it depends I think on how it passes you by, what you did make of the book, and the experience of the reading. I can’t comment on this one though because it’s so long since I read it … but I did review it, and describe why I thought it a novella!

  2. I’ve listened to this a couple of times, because it didn’t stick (either time). I don’t like Barnes much, and now I’ve been reminded by the review of the ending, I don’t think Veronica’s behaviour makes much senses – it’s just drama for the sake of drama.

  3. LOL it’s so long since I read this book, I forgot what the ending was and of course hadn’t even hinted at it in my review. So I was pleased to have that link to Blackman’s ‘ending’ explanation to remind me, but you know, I think he’s missed the point. The book is not IMO about guilt and responsibility and who should feel it.

  4. I’m rather embarrassed to say that any memory of this book has really passed me by. Even the memory of ‘finding’ a different ending has faded too. The review had fallen into the ‘Pages’ part of WordPress instead of ‘Posts’, which is how I found it. I now use this blog as a way of reminding myself what I have read, which is why I posted it after so many years. But for a Booker Prize winner, it seems to have been remarkably forgettable for me- rather ironic given that time, memory and forgetting seems to be such a theme of the book!

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