Sense of An Ending Deserving of Praise

By Julian Barnes
Vintage, 166 pp. ISBN 978-0307947727
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This short book—more of a novella than a novel—won Britain’s Man Booker Prize (the equivalent of the National Book Award) in 2011 and, for once, I applaud the committee’s choice. It is a book about time, aging, memory, and regret. It is also a work that explores not only endings, but our senses as well. As anyone over 50 knows, aging and memory aren’t the most compatible of bedfellows. We worry about memory loss (or trivialize amidst a welter of bad jokes), but do we also reify youth in ways we should not? Is aged memory any worse than the shallow perceptions of youth? Did we really “see” the things we claim to have “seen” during the callow days of youth? What decisions did we make oblivious of their impact? What consequences did we dodge?  

The novel opens in an English public school which, for reasons only Brits understand, is actually an expensive private school. It’s the sort of snooty place where young boys are taught how to become members of the upper crust, as well as the proper way to look down their noses at social inferiors. Our protagonist, Tony Webster, is an elite-in-making, though his family background is more humble. He hangs out with two other lads and all three like to pretend they are brilliant and clever. Enter the new kid, Adrian Finn, who really is brilliant and clever. Tony quickly befriends him, partly in the hope that Adrian’s intellect is a contagion he’ll catch. He doesn’t. Adrian eventually goes off to Cambridge and Tony to middle-of-the-road Bristol University, where he meets Veronica, his first serious love. Alas, like Adrian, she’s slightly out of his class. The relationship quickly unravels after an awkward weekend spent with Veronica’s parents. In the next several months Tony receives several other shocks, the news that Adrian wishes to date Veronica, and then the news that Adrian has committed suicide.

What happens to the promise of youth?  Was it ever promising in the first place? What really happened in the past? Pay attention to Adrian’s line that history is where the inadequacy of memory intersects with the insufficiency of evidence. In part two of the book, Tony is recently retired, a divorced father in his 60s, and of the type the British often call a “putterer,” the sort who drift through life ding this and that. Tony was not clever; he became the one thing neither he nor his schoolboy friends ever wished to be: ordinary. Tony lived more as an object than an actor in life’s drama. And so he probably would have spent his final days (an “ending”) had he not mysteriously received a small bequest from Veronica’s recently deceased mother, plus transference of ownership of Adrian’s diary. The fact that Veronica has possession of the latter and refuses to turn it over leads Tony to contact her.

No, this is not one of those trashy spring-love-renewed-in-autumn romances; it’s more compelling than that. The question of why Veronica won’t turn over the diary is met with another important but ambiguous line: “You don’t get it, Tony, and you never did.” What is “it?” Tony has several meetings with Veronica, each as awkward as their country weekend forty years earlier, and Tony still has no clue about “it.” Somehow, though, Tony thinks that “it” might be the “sense” that makes “sense” of his life. Memories come flooding back, but can he trust them? And can we, as readers, trust the explanations he imposes, Veronica implies, and other story characters reveal? Why is Tony so fixated on a single uncomfortable weekend from long ago? What really happened between Tony, Adrian, and Veronica? What does a man who has for decades lived beyond desire want from Veronica? And where is Barnes leading us? Is it a real ending, or merely a “sense” of an ending?

I suppose cynics might dismiss the questions Barnes raises as analogous to the pretentious- masquerading-as-profound forays into existential philosophy that Tony and his vacuous mates once pondered. Not me. I admired Barnes’s ability to make me care about such self-absorbed characters, and that he found weighty ideas to contemplate amidst the wreckage of their lives. It is a beautifully crafted book, elegant in its prose, and balanced between pathos and humor. Warning: If you need definitive resolutions, you may have to impose one. I have mused over this book for days and I’m still not sure if it’s a British version of That Championship Season, Chinatown, The Graduate, a mash of all three, or something else entirely. I’d love to hear what you think happened.—Rob Weir  

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