Revisiting The Sense of an Ending

The Sense of an Ending (2011)
Julian Barnes
Knopf, 163 pages

I’m on a long library waiting list for The Only Story, the latest novel from Julian Barnes, so I decided to re-read his 2011 Man Booker Prize-winning The Sense of an Ending. My second reading was even more satisfying than the first.

Barnes borrowed the title from theorist Frank Kermode, who investigated, “making sense of the way we try to make sense of our lives.” This device clues us that our main character, Tony Webster, will be an unreliable narrator. What Barnes gives us is, both literally and metaphorically, a “sense” of what happened in the past. Did yesterday really happen the way we recall it?

Barnes’ brilliant novella is divided into two parts, Webster’s school days, and the events of 40 years in the future that trigger a desire to reconstruct yesteryear—if, indeed, such a thing is possible. We meet Tony and his chums, Alex and Colin, in their public school (which means “private” in Britain) in that confusing time of late adolescence when in which fecklessness and burgeoning intellect collide. Their perception their own cleverness is severely compromised when Adrian Finn enters their orbit. Try as they will, there’s no hiding the fact that Finn is a true intellectual and is far more gifted than they. Hormones complicate matters. Tony acquires a girlfriend, Veronica Ford, but she is socially and economically out of his league, as he discovers in an extremely awkward weekend with her parents in the countryside. Upon graduation, Adrian goes off to Cambridge, and Tony settles for reading history at Bristol University. By then, he and Veronica are off, but it still unsettles him when Adrian asks his permission to go out with her.

Turn the page to the future. Tony’s life has been a passive one in which he’s had minor triumphs, but also disappointments; he’s retired, divorced, has civil but superficial relationships with his daughter and ex-wife, but mostly he’s on autopilot. Over the years he has had occasional contact with Alex and Colin, but even those relationships have become perfunctory. Tony is so inert that he’s not sure whether he was happy to have plodded through life, or if he should have become a brief, brilliant comet like Adrian, who died young. In Tony’s voice Barnes writes of his conflicted mind,

We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imagined we were being responsible but were only being cowardly. What we called realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things rather than facing them. Time… give us enough time and our best-supported decisions will seem wobbly, our certainties whimsical.

Whatever solace Tony took from his quiet life is disturbed when he receives a surprise post that includes a small check from the estate of Sarah Ford, Veronica’s mother, and a solicitor’s letter informing him that he has also been left a diary kept by Adrian. The kicker is that the diary is in Veronica’s possession, and he hasn’t seen her since his university days. Tracking her down opens doors Tony long ago nailed shut. Veronica’s reluctance to part with the diary both intrigues and baffles him, as does the fact that she seems to hang out with psychologically damaged and mentally challenged people. The select photocopies she shares, however, make Tony ponder what he knows of his own life, let alone the circumstances of those who were once so important to him.

 How do we begin to recover that which is gone? Want to know why Barnes won the Man Booker? Try this opening passage:

I remember, in no particular order:
—a shiny inner wrist;
—steam rising from a wet sink as a hot frying pan is laughingly tossed into it;
—gouts of sperm circling a plughole, before being sluiced down the full length of a tall house;
—a river rushing nonsensically upstream, its wave and wash lit by half a dozen chasing torchbeams;
—another river, broad and grey; the direction of its flow disguised by a stiff wind exciting the surface;
—bathwater long since gone cold behind a locked door.
This last isn’t something I actually saw, but what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.

That’s simply amazing writing—at once tantalizing, vivid, and enigmatic. Every word of it matters. The Sense of an Ending ranks among such great coming of age novels as Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and John Knowles’ A Separate Peace. It is, at once, a sad tale and an object lesson on memory. Is it any wonder the list is long for the new Julian Barnes novel?

Rob Weir

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