Julian Barnes’ The Sense of An Ending begins with a sense of the beginnings.
Splashes of (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 intellectual prig.
But 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.
Such 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:
“For years 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 and mythology.
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.