The Sense of an Ending

Julian Barnes
2011

Short yet thorough, spare yet eloquent, The Sense of an Ending explores the relationship between time and memory, the gap — sometimes the gulf — between the persons we think that we are and the persons we have been in reality. How we distort the past to protect the present. How we protect the past to produce the present.

While I was teaching English literature, Beowulf to the Brownings, I was so overrun with students’ earnest essays that I lost track of contemporary fiction. And during my recent years blogging about the softer human sciences, I read constantly, but not widely.

As a consequence, I am quite a bit behind the curve on good, recent fiction. I regard early Eco as au courant, and I’ve attempted only one deLillo. So you shouldn’t be surprised if my present foray into fiction seems more like a browse through the critical best-seller list and less like a true immersion. If it weren’t for Neal Stephenson (I’ve had a lifelong love of quality future fiction), there’d be no one of whose body of literary work I could say, “Yes, I’ve read him.”

I’ve recently reviewed Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, and I’ll soon be writing about Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies. I liked most of the first, and I won’t like the second as much as you probably did.

But there is one critic’s favourite that I did like, and I liked it very much. That book is Julian Barnes’s Man Booker Prize winner, The Sense of an Ending.

Short yet thorough, spare yet eloquent, The Sense of an Ending explores the relationship between time and memory, the gap — sometimes the gulf — between the persons we think that we are and the persons we have been in reality. How we distort the past to protect the present. How we protect the past to produce the present.

There are things about The Sense of an Ending that could be criticized. For instance, some of the turns of the story are arbitrary, even melodramatic. But the slow and inevitable stripping away of the illusions of the protagonist, Tony Webster, about his life — about himself — proceeds with an irresistible force.

In the end, we are compelled to confront the question: How much of ourselves is merely revisionist history, self-protecting and self-deluding fabrication? It’s an uneasy question at best. For the protagonist, as for the unlucky among us, the answer is both definitive and devastating. He is not the good man he thought he was. He has not lived the satisfying life that he believes that he has lived. He knows that he is not an achiever, but can he survive the realization that he is not even averagely admirable. Could we?

From the beginning, Barnes takes us into the inner world of perception and memory.

Is there anything more plausible than a second hand? 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.

The story begins with its characters in the tremulous transition from adolescents to young men. Barnes is both incisive and sympathetic when he describes the three friends: “We luxuriated in the doldrums of adolescence, imagining our routine discontent to be an original response to the human condition.”

The worst fate they could imagine was to be ordinary, to be inconsequential: “This was another of our fears: that Life wouldn’t turn out to be like Literature. Look at our parents—were they the stuff of Literature?”

The novel’s narrative follows the now-retired Tony’s pursuit of the truth of the events of his youth. It’s a quest that he undertakes with determination, even desperation, for he suspects that he and the things that he remembers as his life were not entirely — not at all? — as he recalls them: “Again, I must stress that this is my reading now of what happened then. Or rather, my memory now of my reading then of what was happening at the time.”

There is no good reason to summarize the events and revelations that make up Tony’s exploration of his past. For one thing, they are not in themselves the novel’s subject; for another, the tension with which the truth is teased out of the past is too delicate for “spoilers.”

In the end, Tony has lost his reassuring versions of his memories. He has also lost the forgiving sense of himself that has supported his illusions. Barnes does not equip us to see this as a good thing or a bad thing. We are left with the tempting and terrifying question: “Would I really want to strip myself down to the raw wood?”

Tony Webster’s final evaluation of himself is clear-eyed and even-tempered. There is no strong emotion left, no energy for passionate recrimination or anguished introspection.

I survived. “He survived to tell the tale”—that’s what people say, don’t they? History isn’t the lies of the victors, as I once glibly assured Old Joe Hunt; I know that now. It’s more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated.

The unique details of his ordinary life speak for themselves. Knowing them now as they were, his job is done.

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.

One reviewer wrote of The Sense of an Ending: “At 163 pages, The Sense of an Ending is the longest book I have ever read.” That’s just the kind of thing that a skilled reviewer would write, but in this case I have considerable sympathy for her sentiment.

After all, The Sense of an Ending is a lifetime long.

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