The Sense of an Ending: A Novel

  • Julian Barnes
  • Knopf
  • 176 pp.

In a novel that just won the 2011 Man Booker Prize, the reliability of memory comes into question as a man reflects on the suicide of a gifted friend and confronts their past.

On October 18, The Sense of An Ending was awarded the 2011 Man Booker Award.

Reviewed by Harriet Douty Dwinell

“School is where it all began,” says Tony Webster, narrator of Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending. “There were three of us, and he now made a fourth.” Colin, Alex, Tony and now Adrian Finn jostle with schoolmasters and each other as they deal with rising ambitions and hormone levels in a secondary school (private or public, we’re not told) somewhere in central London at some time (again, unspecified) in the 1960s, when things were plain: “less money, no electronic devices, little fashion tyranny, no girlfriends.” Sex hungry, meritocratic, anarchistic: these are further adjectives Tony uses to describe himself and his pals. At its beginning, the novel might have been titled The History Boys on Chesil Beach, to conflate titles of two recent renowned works by English writers that deal with clever students and sex.

Soon, however, Adrian begins to distinguish himself. While Tony jokingly thinks a poem by Ted Hughes is about a barn owl, Adrian suggests, “Eros and Thanatos, sir ... Sex and death” — the erotic principle “coming into conflict with the death principle. And what ensues from that conflict. Sir.” Later, Adrian engages into a colloquy with his history teacher on the futility of ascribing responsibility to historic acts — and argues that the definition of “historic acts” includes personal behavior by ordinary citizens — and still later, after a schoolmate has committed suicide, asserts that Camus considered suicide “the only true philosophical question.”

After graduation, the boys fan out, Tony to Bristol to read history, Colin to Sussex, Alex into his father’s business, and Adrian, the shining star, to Cambridge on a scholarship to study philosophy. At increasingly infrequent reunions in London, everyone vies for Adrian’s attention. Tony’s interest shifts when he meets Veronica, a difficult fellow student who criticizes Tony’s taste in music and literature and won’t engage in more than what Tony calls “infra-sex.” If you are not familiar with that term (as I wasn’t), not to worry, for Barnes describes it often. Certain memorable scenes are drawn, especially a weekend visit to Veronica’s home, where Tony engages awkwardly with the perplexing father, the enigmatic mother and the supercilious older brother, Jack, who like Adrian is a Cambridge student. During this weekend Tony feels, with little evident reason, embarrassed and humiliated. There is also a day spent in London during the holidays, when Tony, proud to have a girlfriend, introduces Veronica to his schoolmates. Out of such small scenes, which replay continually in Tony’s mind, is The Sense of an Ending constructed.

Eventually, Tony and Veronica break up. During final exams, Adrian, encouraged by Veronica, writes Tony to ask for permission to date her. Tony responds in a postcard faking cheerful nonchalance while secretly fuming at “the hypocrisy of a letter whose point was not just to tell me something I might not have found out anyways ... but to let me know how she, Veronica, had traded up: to my cleverest friend.” Later, Tony writes Adrian ... well, exactly what Tony writes becomes a crucial point in the novel.

Then, a year later, Adrian is dead, a suicide. In a note to the coroner, he explains that “life is a gift bestowed without anyone asking for it; that the thinking person has a philosophical duty to examine both and nature of life and the conditions it comes with; and that if this person decides to renounce the gift no one asks for, it is a moral and human duty to act on the consequences of that decision.”

Suddenly the novel’s straightforward chronology stops. Now in his 60s, retired, divorced, with one child and two grandchildren, bald, running a volunteer library at the local hospital, Tony receives a bequest from Veronica’s mother of 500 English pounds, a letter and a diary, Adrian’s diary. Unfortunately, the diary is in the possessive hands of Veronica, who refuses to give it up. Overnight, the placid Tony, who was satisfied with a 2.1 university degree and an undistinguished job in arts management, who lost a wife to divorce for reasons he didn’t understand, and who, by his own description, lets life happen to him, morphs into one of Julian Barnes’ familiar obsessive middle-aged men and embarks upon a nasty passive-aggressive campaign to smoke out Veronica and get full control of his inheritance.

In his emotionally passive way, Tony has kept in touch with his ex-wife, Margaret, who had told him that “there were two sorts of women: those with clear edges ... and those who implied mystery,” and that a man was attracted to one or the other. Margaret is clearly the former; you can see her chairing the local charity ball. But to suggest that Veronica is mysterious is absurd. From the start, she is capricious and nasty, and later sorrows have not made her more empathetic. When Tony, with intimations of mortality stirred by the bequest, reaches out to Veronica, she can only reply, “You just don’t get it! You never did and you never will.”

A Sense of an Ending has two climaxes — a false climax and the genuine one — a characteristic found more often in mysteries than in literary fiction. In her “mysterious” way — read, “unexplained” — Veronica meets up with Tony and drives him to a poor North London suburb to observe. “Look,” she commands. What he is to observe is not clear and Veronica doesn’t explain. Later, obsessed, Tony returns again and again to this seedy area to try to “get it.” When, in a flash, he thinks he does, he (and the reader, or this reader) are overwhelmed by feelings of “pity and terror,” that Aristotelian term that marks true tragedy.

But Barnes, a clever writer, can become too clever by half. He turns the screw one more time, and the false climax gives way to the real. Although this climax may have been prepared for by Adrian’s clever use of symbolic logic to explore limits of human responsibility, the outcome is a stretch, and I closed The Sense of an Ending more as I might close a detective story, thinking about clues and wondering how I missed them, my emotions of pity and terror gone.

Years ago I read that American novelists strive to write the all-encompassing Great American Novel, while their English cousins bite off small slices of life with greater frequency. The Sense of an Ending is Julian Barnes’ 18th book. It is short — it can be read in a day or two — and somewhat engaging, but however much Barnes may feel he is exploring universal issues, his characters, too limited to serve in that capacity, are uninteresting. No wonder everyone turns to Adrian whenever he appears. It is Adrian’s bright star that burns so brightly in Tony’s world, only to be snuffed out with his own hand in a morally ambiguous act. Tony’s story is an intellectual construct. The thinking is there, but where’s the feeling?

Harriet Douty Dwinell reviewed Pulse , a short-story collection by Julian Barnes, on June 3.  She liked that book!

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