31 Aug Book Review | The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes
The first time I stumbled upon the author Julian Barnes was finding a quote from his second novel “Before She Met Me” in the preface of another, scholarly criticism book I was consulting at one point or another during university. I’ve since forgotten it, annoyingly, and I’m almost certain I wrote it down somewhere, but it was enough to burn his name into my brain.
So, happening upon one of his titles in a charity shop recently I decided it was time to read a bit of his work properly.
I delved into the Man Booker prize winning, exceedingly short book “The Sense of an Ending” after scanning the first couple of lines of the blurb. I expected, and was excited about what I thought was going to be a Dead Poets Society-esque ode to youth and seizing the moment and being moved by ideas and literature. Oh how wrong I was.
Perhaps it should have been telling from the very title that this would be a depressing book. “The Sense of an Ending” – endings are by and large sad aren’t they? Or bittersweet? Sometimes they are relieving. As in the case of this book.
I had a mixture of frustration and relief when I reached the ending of “The Sense of an Ending” because as short as it was, it really was hard work to get through.
Maybe I just didn’t “get it.” It feels like one of those novels, the kind that if you didn’t enjoy it, you just didn’t “get.” The fact it’s a Man Booker prize winner would suggest that.
Barnes throws us in at the deep end with ideas on time and the mind and how we understand it from the very first page. Teasing out historical and philosophical theories and ideas is one interesting aspect of this novel that is that is wrangled with throughout. But it is also begins to feel tiresome the more our increasingly unlikeable narrator, Tony Webster, teases such theories and ideas out applying them to his own life with limp albeit persistent questioning.
The novel begins with our narrator reflecting on his high school years whenever he and his two friends welcomed, tentatively, the new boy, Adrian Finn, into their friend group. We don’t find out too much about Adrian (or his other two friends) save the fact that he was a quietly intelligent young man who would go on to do great things.
The best parts of this book are Tony’s memories of his history lessons with Joe Hunt. These were formative years in Tony’s life and represent the first time our narrator is struck by theories and ideas. Indeed, throughout the novel he refers back to the historical discussions had in that class, still questioning, still interested.
When Tony starts university he dates the second most unlikeable character in the novel (after Tony himself of course) Veronica.
Veronica is Tony’s first girlfriend and she is weird. Not in a quirky, cute way either. Just a strange individual in how she interacts with others. Tony describes it as “mysterious” I’d describe it as infuriating. Take her catchphrase for instance “You just don’t get it do you? You never did, and you never will” She rhymes off this condescending line to Tony multiple times throughout the book and I felt like shredding it to bits every time she did. I wanted to scream at Tony to grab her and shake her and shout TELL ME THEN! Well done on that one Mr Barnes for making me hate a fictional character to unprecedented levels.
When Tony meets up with her again, years later in the present day, time has not done any favours for old Veronica. Angry, blunt and frustrating are the three words I would use to describe her character. At least she is consistent, I’ll give her that.
Still, it must be remembered that we are reading Tony’s perception, his memories, the novel is always skewed in his point of view and thus we cannot completely trust it, we can never uncover the whole truth simply a semblance of it. And Tony, ever the historian, never lets us forget that.
Anyway. After two years of dating at university, during which Veronica allegedly led Tony on until something better came along because she didn’t want to sleep with him, Tony and Veronica broke up. A couple of months later she starts dating Adrian, and Tony is very offended by it all and writes an unforgivably horrible letter to them both.
Then, months and months later, while Tony is travelling around America, the only interesting thing he has ever done with his life from what I can see, Adrian kills himself.
Yep. He kills himself and Tony isn’t exactly sad just a bit shocked. I don’t think emotion-less Tony is capable of being sad about anything.
He meets up with the rest of his gang to talk about it and then well, life goes on. Tony leads a wholly unremarkable life and we get a whistle-stop tour through it. He works all his life in art administration, marries, has a daughter, gets divorced, and then retires.
When circumstances arise in which he must get in contact with Veronica, Tony revisits Adrian’s death and his youthful memories, questioning what it’s been all about, this thing called life.
A sense of depressing hopelessness pervades this book. I found it to be an elegy to what could have been. We compare and contrast the young Tony on the cusp of starting his life with the old Tony with only a few years left of it and we come to the realisation that his life never came to much.
He led his life as the epitome of common sense and maturity but this just sucked the last fizzles of excitement and hope that he ever had. Describing how
“I remember a period in late adolescence when my mind would make itself drunk with images of adventurousness…There was a moment in my late twenties when I admitted that my adventurousness had long since petered out. I would never do those things adolescence had dreamt about. Instead I mowed my lawn, I took holidays, I had my life.”
How depressing, eh? Or realistic?
Tony resigns himself to “life” as he perceives it, that losing your spirit and adventurousness is an inevitability when in actual fact he made a choice to mow the lawn instead of living “as people in novels live and have lived” which is all a matter of subjectivity in itself too. He chose maturity, he chose the path that was expected of him and fitted into it perfectly.
The best and simultaneously worst line in the novel is –
“Sometimes I think the purpose of life is to reconcile us to its eventual loss by wearing us down, by proving, however long it takes, that life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be”
Perhaps had I read this book forty years from now at the ripe old age of 63 I would have chuckled in agreement with Tony’s insights on life. Maybe it’s just because I am relatively young that Tony’s depressing views on life are totally at odds with my own life philosophy. This book screams out to me not to lose your spirit to life’s mundanity but maybe that’s inevitable. Perhaps I am naïve.
As much as I didn’t enjoy this book, it did make me THINK and had some interesting insights and for that much I can commend it.