Julian Barnes’ The Sense of An Ending begins with a sense of the beginnings.
(mostly) watery images dapple the first page, before Tony Webster, the
narrator, launches into a discussion about the wavelike malleability of time in
a life – how it can slow down, speed up and even disappear.
Tony, in his waning years with most of a very ordinary life behind him, looks
back. He says he will relate “a few incidents that have grown to anecdotes, to
some approximate memories which time has deformed into certainty.” And so he begins
his personal history, part memoir, part coming of age story. His mythology will,
in a mere 160 pages, be challenged,
debunked and reversed by unforeseen events so dramatic that the reader will be
left reassessing, even recoiling from the self-serving explanations of this
I am ahead of myself. Tony narrates his story, waxing on in an initially inviting
voice about a band of schoolboys, chums full of themselves and ideas: “We were
book-hungry, sex-hungry, meritocratic, anarchistic… If Alex had read Russell and Wittgenstein,
Adrian had read Camus and Nietzsche. I had read George Orwell and Aldous Huxley;
Colin had read Baudelaire and Dostoevsky.” They wear their watches on the inside of their
wrists as a symbol of their unity and call up the clique’s refrain, “That’s
philosophically self-evident,” whenever applicable.
Tony is not without intellectual charm, but Adrian outshines them all
stunning a teacher with his explanations of what is history. When a peer
commits suicide after getting a girl pregnant, Adrian finds the event an
occasion for philosophical analysis. He
quotes, “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections
of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.” He applies it, speculating
on a note left behind by the deceased.
Adrian also cites Camus’ existential ideas about suicide and choice.
theory of philosophy, history and literature full of “eros and thanatos”
dominate the boys’ thoughts and delights, though when they look at their
parents’ dull lives, they “fear that life wouldn’t turn out like literature.” Intellectually
cocksure and heady, they are virginal innocents with no experience, sexual or
otherwise, to anchor their opinions.
The band dissolves. The boys become men and the high-brow discussions of
their adolescence on love and death, literature and personal history play out
in real, rather than theoretical, ways.
Tony starts “going
out” (he explains what this meant in his day) with Veronica. He details the
era’s bumbling and groping mutual sexual stimulation, far short of “full sex.”
Most people, he tells us “didn’t experience ‘the sixties’ until the seventies.
Which meant, logically, that most people in the sixties were still experiencing
the fifties – or in my case both decades side by side.” His love life proceeds on track until he is
invited to meet the parents. The disappointing and humiliating weekend – a
beginning of the end -- is followed some
time later by a nasty break up with recriminations over sex and love.
In the midst
of the break-up that Tony inserts a seemingly unrelated description of the most
powerful natural occurrence he witnessed during his school days – an image that
will come to dominate his remembrance of that time. The Severn Bore, like the
Bay of Fundy, displays a tidal river’s periodic dramatic reversal of the direction
of water flow. “It was more unsettling
because it looked and felt quietly wrong, as if some small lever of the
universe had been pressed, and here, just for these minutes, nature was
reversed, and time with it.”
After the break up, time passes and Tony gets a letter from Adrian letting
him know that he is seeing Veronica. Tony responds in a letter he sums up and
dismisses in a short paragraph. And then
because he thinks of himself as “peaceable” and given to “self-preservation” he
“successfully puts Veronica out of his mind, out of his history.” Career, marriage, a child, divorce,
grandchildren and retirement ensue.
If Part One concludes with Tony leading a dull, less than
literature-worthy existence, Part Two reverses the course of the novel when those
formative events flood back into his life.
Tony is bequeathed a small sum along with some documents that bring him
back to his mutual history with Veronica and Adrian.
Events will lead him to posit this question, a question fraught with
irony given the outcome:
you survive with the same loops, the same facts and the same emotions. I press
a button marked Adrian or Veronica, the tape runs, the usual stuff spools out.
The events reconfirm the emotions – resentment, a sense of injustice, relief
–and vice versa. There seems no way of accessing anything else; the case is
closed. Which is why you seek corroboration, even if it turns out to be a
contradiction. But what if, even at a
late stage, your emotions relating to those long-ago events and people change?”
The Sense of
an Ending is a small book that seems big.
plays against one of the major works of criticism of the book’s era,
Frank Kermode’s The Sense of An Ending, a work published in that discusses, like Barnes’ novel, man’s relationship to time, the concordance of beginnings and
endings and fiction’s role in history
Though the novel examines themes of philosophy, history, and literary
criticism, it may be most interesting as a tightly woven study of psychological
change. It calls to mind recent work by
narrative psychologists, who explore the way narratives shape the self, as well
as how the self shapes narrative in order to “self preserve.”
And it serves as an example in the
current psychological emphasis on emotional intelligence. Though Tony seems an affable story teller at
the start, as he proceeds, the reader’s distrust builds. Tony’s not just
unreliable, he’s numb, smug and pushy. Repeatedly, Veronica tells him: “You
just don’t get it.”
He doesn’t. Nor do we. For he is our filter.
And then he does – as do we. The sense we are left with is revulsion. In Barnes’ book not only does the main
character change over the course of the story, but the reader changes her
relation to the narrator. For all the intellectual arguing, it is sense
we are left with at book’s end.
Julian Barnes has achieved a remarkable feat. Adolescence is regarded as
the time when the core sense of self forms, one that’s often difficult to
change. Barnes has both illustrated and inverted
this process. The final irony may be that by the telling’s end nothing about
Tony’s self has changed – and everything has.