on September 10, 2011
Julian Barnes' very short new novel, currently nominated for the Man Booker Prize, is by no means perfect -- but it is very much authentic, and that counts for a lot with me. As its title suggests, it is written by a man approaching 70, like Barnes himself, looking back on his youth and re-evaluating. This may be a limitation for younger readers, but it is what one does around that age, and Barnes handles it with impressive honesty. As an Englishman of very similar background myself, and only a year or two older, I found the book uncannily full of echoes from my own life, and no doubt those of many others: the group of friends in high-school who go their separate ways, the strange limbo of early sixties sex, a friend's suicide, the mystery of a never quite forgotten first girlfriend. I have not felt so much part of a novel since reading Ian McEwan's ON CHESIL BEACH; this may bias my review, but it also speaks to a depth of personal connection in the author's mind too. This makes the book, short though it is, a vast improvement on Barnes' recent set of short stories, PULSE, and almost as good as THE LEMON TABLE, the wonderful collection that preceded it.
Tony Webster is a man in his later sixties, divorced, the father of a grown daughter, and comfortably retired. Then a letter arrives that sends him back in memory to his high-school days and his friendship with Adrian Finn, a brilliant student clearly destined for great things. While Adrian is indeed achieving academic success at Cambridge, Tony pursues his studies at a provincial university, devoting as much time to a mostly-unconsummated relationship with Veronica Ford, his girlfriend from a rather more upscale family. Then, when Tony is visiting in America, Adrian dies. There seems no mystery about it at the time, but when Tony is forced to reconsider after a gap of forty-some years, his search becomes a moral calculus, weighing the value of that one life against what he's made of his own, settling for an undistinguished career and marriage, calling it comfort but really meaning cowardice.
The opening sections of the novel have strong similarities to Alan Bennett's play THE HISTORY BOYS, and the question of what constitutes history runs all through the book. The teenage Tony quotes Churchill's aphorism that "History is written by the victors," but his teacher counters that "it is also the self-delusion of the defeated." As Tony looks back on his life, different and sometimes surprising versions of the truth will emerge, and the question of winners and losers will by no means be so clear. This is the intellectual mystery of the book, and I found it fascinating. But you cannot write a novel on philosophical and literary reflections alone; there need also be events, shifts of direction, surprise revelations. Here I think Barnes falls short. The disclosures in the last section of the story, pulled like rabbits out of the hat, are in my opinion inadequately prepared in the first half. So while Barnes ties up the mysteries with the neatness of a PD James or Agatha Christie, he leaves Tony's personal calculus disappointingly open-ended.
I guess I'll just have to work out my own past in my own way!
Julian Barnes' new novel, The Sense of an Ending *), is an intimate reflection on memory and its unreliability over time. Writing in the voice of sixty-something-year-old Anthony Webster, a "peaceable man", Barnes explores convincingly how the brain grows selective and untrustworthy with age, reinterpreting how "what you end up remembering isn't always the same as what you have witnessed... Thus, the reader is put on notice from the beginning that what we read may not be quite what it will turn out to be.
Isolated memory snippets open the novel: a "shiny inner wrist; a river rushing nonsensically upstream, its wave and wash lit by half a dozen chasing torchbeams; another river...; bathwater long gone cold behind a locked door". Initially we don't really know where we are and who is talking. The narrator wonders about "everyday" time - "it holds us and moulds us"; pain or pleasure can give us the illusion of its stretching or contracting... Something has triggered his musings that take his mind back to "a few incidents that have grown into anecdotes, to some approximate memories which time has deformed into certainty."
Those incidents take us without much transition to his adolescent years, when growing up is as daunting as it is exciting: close friendships are an essential component, so are school and teachers, and the mounting physical urge for intimate encounters... Barnes is perceptive and astute in his depiction of Tony and his trio of close friends. Adrian, "a tall, shy boy who initially kept his eyes down and his mind to himself..." stands out in terms of intelligence and his admiration for Camus's existentialist philosophy. The others, while joining in the wide-ranging debates in class - on history, on "Birth, Copulation, and Death", on poetry - are more concerned with "getting" a girl or pretending to... These are the early nineteen-sixties and the sexual liberation may be spreading elsewhere but not here.
Then, school is out and life moves on... fast forward. An early tragedy, rather than bringing them together, pushes the friends further apart. So, what, forty odd years later, brought all these memories back to the fore in Tony's mind? Why does his first girlfriend's "You don't get it, do you...!?" comes back to haunt him after all these years? Didn't she not call him a "coward" then, but why? Along the way, we receive few hints as to the connections between past and present. Barnes holds his cards close to his chest, just giving us enough context to want to keep reading... It is only when reaching the novel's concluding pages that we are confronted with scenarios that challenge our own recollections of what might have happened earlier on. Did we get caught out in the memory game by missing sublte clues, by interpreting behaviour and events to suit our image of the hero? Could our perception of Anthony Webster's character potentially "stand up in court"? For me personally, the ending of the book made my reading of the book as a whole much more meaningful. The first part, set in the school and boys' environment, while well captured and interesting in a detached sort of way, did not overly engage my female mind. Yet, after reaching the last pages I looked back at the earlier depictions of people and events and felt them bringing out additional layers and depths to the story. In the end, did Barnes leave enough clues for his readers to solve all of the puzzles? It is up to the reader to decide. [Friederike Knabe]
*) shortlisted for this year's Man Booker Prize
on June 25, 2013
Julian Barnes’ 2011 Man Booker Prize winning novel ” The Sense of an Ending” follows the life of Tony, an awkward and desperately intelligent soul. Bildungsroman – I’m not entirely certain how to use it in a sentence, but this is the term that I believe is used for this genre of novel.
Although nothing remarkable really happens for the majority of the story, I still found myself incapable of turning away from the page. Told in first person, I can only assume that this had something, or perhaps everything, to do with the voice of its’ protagonist. The novel begins with Tony, to the best of his ability, recounting his journey from youth into adulthood, with a strong emphasis on a genius whom he called his friend, and a girl (I feel that I needn’t say more than that). Insecure, uncertain, and yet sure that his paradigm is correct and his memories sound, Tony frequently explains to the reader that he has a specific story he wishes to tell. Omitting descriptions of acquaintances and friends that don’t immediately serve his narrative, the question ‘what story is he talking about?’ rested very near the outskirts of my periphery. That question is, in fact, not really answered until nearly three quarters of the way through the novel, at which point we catch up with Tony in the present day, and the story takes yet another turn.
Simple and yet astonishing, Barnes cleverly pulls the reader from start to finish with delicate hints of unrest and mystery.
As I read, I couldn’t help but compare Tony Webster’s relationship with Victoria (the girl) with that of Philip Carey and Mildred – the relationship depicted in Somerset Maugham’s novel “Of Human Bondage.” I saw the similarities between these two relationships even before finishing the book and flipping to the back page to see that one of Julian Barnes’ honours included the ‘Somerset Maugham Award.’ Perhaps I picked up on something after all.
Love, infuriating love, in all its irrationality and hopelessness had me tempted to throw Maugham’s book out the window. My reaction wasn’t quite so strong with Barnes’ novel, but perhaps this is because the nature of the narration led me to consistently question the validity of Tony’s retelling of events.
The novel certainly provoked the problem of the unreliable narrator. I often wondered if I could entirely trust Tony, and yet I knew I didn’t have a choice.
In this way the “The Sense of an Ending” shares some similarities with the novel “The Good Soldier” by Ford Maddox Ford.” A novel where the protagonist is consistently caught out in a lie, often back-tracking, and even more often apologizing for forgotten information that might have swayed the readers opinion a different way had it been shared when it had been relevant.
Perhaps it is the combination of all of these factors which kept me riveted to the page and, upon completing the work, inspired the desire to read it again.
The big question asked by Barnes in the context of this novel is based on the validity of history. How is history created, and can we trust it? In a world where every soul tells a different story of the same event, how can we ever be comfortable in our own reality? How can we be sure of anything? Is it better to ask these questions, or is it better to live in a comfortable state of ignorance. I recently read a post on Facebook which seems to compliment these questions perfectly: “I wish I was just dumb enough to not realize that I was dumb.”
I would like to share an excerpt from the novel that I feel fully encapsulates what it’s about – don’t worry, this isn’t a spoiler.
“But time… how time first grounds us and then confounds us. 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”
As I read through this review, and look over the above passage, I feel certain that what makes this book so memorable is the bravery of its’ author in sharing such an unapologetic and sometimes unlikable voice with his audience. With this honesty, he turns the microscope back on us, because behind our pleasant smiles and polite nods, he knows that we’ll each continue to re-write our own histories in a light that paints us only as well-meaning and rational… even if we aren’t.
Tony Webster, a cautious and careful man, aged in his 60s receives an unexpected bequest from a woman he'd met, the mother of his girlfriend Veronica Ford, 40 years earlier. She has bequeathed him £500, and her diary, and he has no idea why. This legacy unsettles Tony and he gets in touch with Veronica to try to obtain the diary (which Veronica has) and to get some answers to long unresolved questions.
In seeking answers to these questions, Tony needs to revisit a past of which his own memories are not completely reliable. For, in living his life so carefully and noncommittally, Tony has been a spectator rather than a participant. This is not true of his friend Adrian Finn, or of Veronica Ford or her mother. But what does this mean, and does it matter? When Tony and Veronica broke up, Adrian and Veronica became a couple. This ended in tragedy, but it is a larger tragedy than Tony realised at the time.
`History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.'
Comparing Tony's self-absorbed account of the past with what apparently happened makes it clear that Tony's life experience is comparatively limited, stilted and free of risk, and largely bereft of joy. For me, this novel is more about questions of life than it is about fictional characters.
`What did I know of life, I who had lived so carefully?'
While I enjoyed reading this novel, I found it unsettling: how many of us, of a similar age to Tony would also have some disconnect between memory and fact? Finding out more about the bequest may answer some questions for Tony, but it raises others. And a number of thoughts related to those questions have remained with me in the 3 months that have elapsed since I read this book.
`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.'
on August 6, 2013
The Sense Of An Ending
By Julian Barnes
This intriguing novel begins by painting a curious picture for the reader, setting the stage for all that had fallen away from narrator Tony's past. You quickly learn that his life was rather messy, to say the least. This is a type of "looking glass novella," where the main character reaches into his past, in an attempt to make sense of how things got so out of hand. Memories can shape who you become as you move forward in life, but they can also become a rock and pull you under.
"I remember, in one particular order: a shiny inner wrist, a steam rising from a wet sink as a hot frying pan is laughingly tossed into it. A river rushing nonsensically upstream, its wave and wash lit by half a dozen chasing torchbeams...bath water long gone cold behind a locked door."
Author Julian Barnes paints a fascinating, as well as tragic, account of one man's look backward in time as he tries to unlock a strange secret that isn't revealed until the very last sentence is read. Tony, when the story opens, is in his sixties now. Divorced and very much alone, he receives a diary from his college day's ex-girlfriend's mother and suddenly his past comes alive in ways he'd never imagined. In twists and turns he'd rather not know. And of course, there are missing pages.
The diary becomes a clever metaphor as author Barnes unleashes secrets and hurt and pain that eventually lead to a truth so surprising, I had to re-read the ending several times to absorb the subtle, but lethal, revelation. Truth is like that, hard to ignore, yet equally as hard to see. No, I'm not telling...But long after I stepped away from this powerful little gem, I started to wonder--could this really have happened?
The diary, which eventually evolves into becoming the main character, is penned by the heroically, over-the-top, nearly unbelievable alter-ego of this tale--Adrian. It's rich in detail and filled with mathematically complicated puzzles Tony (as well as the reader) is left to unravel. Though the author uses few words to examine this interplay of memory versus diary excerpts, it shines with a rare literary brilliance using nuance and suggestion. This adds to the murky quest Tony is on to discover how life got so off the proverbial track.
One rather irritating writing technique author Barne's pushes to the limit is how he would occasionally step literally onto the page and give comment about his characters behavior. As if it was somehow not his fault. Several times I honestly wanted to smack him and suggest a re-write!
"Does character develop over time? In novels, of course it does: otherwise there wouldn't be much of a story."
See what I mean?
This work would make a great book club read since it has so many curious aspects to consider. What to do with a troubled past, should secrets stay unspoken and do you really want authors to suddenly pop onto the stage and criticize their own creations? Imagine if suddenly Betty Crocker popped into your kitchen and ridiculed your sugar cookies!
Ostensibly, "The Sense of an Ending" describes a domestic drama in which Tony Webster revisits his school days to make sense of his current circumstances. However, the short novel quickly becomes much more: a meditation on memory, a questioning of history and a philosophical discussion about the nature of time.
The book opens in the early sixties in when three sexually ambitious and frustrated boys, including Webster, are in their final year of secondary school. A new boy, Adrian Finn, soon joins the group and proves so thoughtfully intelligent that one of the teachers says to him in front of the class: 'I retire in five years. And I shall be happy to give you a reference if you care to take over.' The boys scatter after graduation and only get back in touch after Adrian's suicide, an event that sparks cogitation about "the noble death" or, as Camus described suicide, "the only true philosophical question."
Compelling and exquisitely concise, "The Sense of an Ending" offers a merciless portrait of a man who "just doesn't get it" but who nevertheless attempts to write a comfortable and human personal history.
on December 2, 2011
I found this book hard to put down for two thirds of it but around page 130 I started getting bored. There's only so much philosophical ruminating about the past/memory/old friends I can take and Tony the protagonist is just so self absorbed I finally wanted to scream "Enough already get a life!" The characters are pretty flat and one dimensional too; as many people point out the only one who has some normal life to her is Margaret the ex-wife. They are all so essentially English. Emotionally cool and diffident. It was hard to understand why Tony is so obsessed with Veronica with her unpleasant ways. I must admit I didn't find any of it shocking or particularly disturbing which I assume is the author's intention, at least partly. The letter he sends to Veronica, well, how many of us haven't written similar letters to old boyfriends who dump us. Most of us just don't actually mail them. And I can't speak for all women but I had more than one middle aged Dad leering at me at sixteen. I didn't find any of this all that interesting. I did enjoy the subtle touches in the book; the slight mention of class differences, even in '60''s England and the period touches like dancing to the record player, gyrating to the Stones. Barnes got that feel of the time right. The ending is a surprise but after all it does make sense. I found myself glad that it let Tony largely off the hook as far is guilt is concerned. I hoped he could get on with his life and finally lay the past to rest.
on September 13, 2014
This is the first Julian Barnes novel I’ve read, and I wasn’t disappointed. Not that he needs my praise. With this effort, Barnes won the 2011 Man Booker Prize. The book is not what I thought. Indeed, it’s impossible to discuss it with giving away vital information, so if you’re thinking of reading the novel, do it, and don’t read the rest of this review. You’ve read the book? Okay, good, let’s continue. I’m not sure how I felt about the discovery, or when Tony Webster finally gets it. I’m not certain I got it, though I think I can speculate. Just not sure how I feel about the sense of the ending, my sense of the ending; was their sense to the ending? Anyway, I had fun searching the net and reading what other people thought about the ending. And again, the book was still very good. Great writing, clever story, Man Booker. Four stars.
Troy Parfitt is the author of Why China Will Never Rule the World
on August 15, 2013
Very readable novel although I was a bit disappointed with the surprise ending. It left me strangely unsatisfied which is a shame because I thought the rest of the novella was brilliant.
I also highly recommend his recent book of essays: Through the Window.
on May 7, 2014
This is an interesting, disturbing, sometimes confusing but compulsively readable book. I enjoyed the experience and plan to re-read it sooner rather than later.