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'The Sense of an Ending' is one of those books that, if given enough investment in terms of thought, truly get under your skin. An innocuous-seeming novella by Julian Barnes (who won the Man Booker prize for this book in 2011), it follows Tony Webster, a retired man who recounts his formative years and past relationships when a character from his personal history - a former prep school colleague - re-emerges. To divulge too far into plot would be to spoil the story, which is incredibly dense with astute social observations and philosophical reflections. Also... much like in real life... expect the unexpected.
Reading the novel involves a level of vigilance, and a willingness to interpret the events as opposed to 'taking the narrator's word for it'. Nothing is what it seems. A friend described the book to me as 'depressing', which I suppose is accurate in a sense, although I found it to be immeasurably rewarding. Its commentary on the imperfections of memory blew my mind. Tony is an old man, clearly intelligent, who we come to trust as he recalls his adolescent clique of pseudo-intellects (and their politics). Naturally, someone looking back at their life, a life 'run out', is a melancholy subject matter, but Barnes infuses Tony's youthful anecdotes with deeper meaning and morality.
'Ending' can be read in a single sitting, being only 200 pages or so. This doesn't mean it is a particularly accessible book, however. A lot of the narrative deals with (pseudo-) intellectualism and big ideas about living; pressing subject matters for even those most satisfied with life. It feels far bigger than it actually is, and its final impact is obscenely huge given its petite size. A powerful, manipulative piece of writing about the delusions we use to live our lives, Barnes' novel had me ruminating over it for days afterwards. A real thinker.
This is a review of the 2011 book 'The sense of an Ending' by Julian Barnes, which is also the winner of the Man Booker Prize (2011). The jacket of the book receives endorsements from all the main national newspapers and magazines like the Daily Mail, Telegraph, Time Out , Sunday Times, Irish Times, Independent , Observer and the Times in addition to another author AD Miller, also shortlisted for the prize who said 'It was like losing to Brazil in the World Cup final'. I got the feeling that this would be one of those books you read that stays with you.
This is a short book at only 150 pages so it only took a couple of days for me to tear through. The book follows Tony Webster as he leaves school and starts at University, meeting his first true love (Veronica) and then losing her.
After not very long, the book jumps forward as Tony spends the next few decades forgetting about Veronica and meeting his wife, starting a family and then the story focuses on his life and Tony asks himself a lot of questions about where he went wrong and what he could have done to lead a more fulfilling and worthy life.
Set in the 60s at the point where Tony goes to University, he and his friends are really full of themselves and like to showcase their intelligence to each other having nonsense conversations and competing against each other for the attention of their genuinely clever friend Adrian. Tony shows the undercurrents of a normal teenage boy in his sexual obsession and failures to get his girlfriend in to bed.
Upon reading the book, I had a massive sense of déjà vu yet I record all my reading in a log (it's huge!) and this was definitely not in there, plus it was only published 2012 so there was no way I could forget reading it in such a short time, baby brain or not. Also, the paperback copy I have is really unusual, with black edged pages that look a bit burnt round the edges. So the only thing I can attribute it to is the beginning 'coming of age' style novel must faintly echo others I have read.
As a grown man, Tony has a lot of regrets during his life, yet he tries to cope with his lot in life. When he revisits the whole Veronica story, she repeatedly tells him 'You just don't get it do you?' and he continues to search for clues to get to the bottom of what he has missed. The links to her mother are vague, having only met her once, yet she leaves him an inheritance and a document which he is unable to get hold of due to Veronica withholding it from him. He wavers between legal action and rebuilding his relationship with Veronica to try and piece together her story. He continues to report back to his wife Margaret (with whom he is long separated) who is patient to a point but not understanding this unhealthy obsession he has with the girl from his past.
The author manages to pack so much into this short book, and yet leaves you wanting more. As the Daily Telegraph urges you to 'Read and re-read'when you get to the end you really do want to read the book again to try and work out what you missed and where the clues lay in the book to the reveal at the end which I'm obviously not going to give away! I would recommend this book as something quite different which introduces the reader to some really intriguing characters and a mysterious storyline to unravel.
Sense of an ending is a short book - more of a novella. I read it in one day and thoroughly enjoyed doing so.
Sense of an ending although short, crams a lot in covering the life of the central character and the people he meets along the way from his teenage years through to adulthood.
Much of the story is told retrospectively. An unexpected inheritance sends the main character delving back through his memory banks taking you through his life as he remembers it trying to piece together the events that led to the present day. I found this inevitably led me to reflect on my life. The choices that have led me to where I am today. This, ability to reach out to the reader is in my opinion the strongest aspect of the book.
In saying that though, Sense of an ending is also well written and has an interesting plot line which we keep you gripped to the end. Unfortunately, in my view the ending is not as strong as the journey but still a book I would highly recommend and a worthy winner of the Man Booker prize. Buy it, read it and read it again.
The Sense of Ending by Jules Barnes won the Man Booker prize on 18th October 2011. The Man Booker Prize for Fiction is a literary prize awarded each year for the best original full-length novel, written in the English language, by a citizen of the Commonwealth of Nations, Ireland, or Zimbabwe as descibed in Wikipedia.
The book is a fictional pshycological journey of a middle-aged man into the depths of his memory repository and investigates how those memories are deliberately and selectively self-edited to create phantasm and deception. It is a 160 page novella published by Jonathan Cape available currently from Amazon at under £7. It is currently ranked at No.5 for bestseller in books category.
If you ask me as to why Jules Barnes would attempt a fiction of this genre, I have pretty much no better idea than anybody else, but then this book carries the same title as one by Frank Kermode published in 1967. Kermode's seminal text on the theory of fiction which he also called The Sense of Ending was organised into six thoughts that basically established the need for humans to civilize time in order to satisfy the urge for sense and comfort. Time is too disorganised and fiction is an attempt to humanize time by giving it a beginning, a middle and an end, and this gives shape to a story. What Barnes does to the namesake novella is to put to test Kermode's theories and establishes in the fiction the interconnected pattern of 'fictions, time and apocalyptic modes of thought'.
Jules starts of by describing the events in the life of four school friends Tony, Colin, Alex and Adrian, narrated by one friend, Tony Webster who falls typically in to the category of the 'English middle class' - ordinary, mundane and bereft of charisma. The school events romanticises on the intellectual pursuits of students delving into language, history and phiolosphy reflecting on the paths and outcomes of life itself. Only notable event is the unfortunate suicide of a fellow student that is dealt in an undeservingly cold manner.
What comes out of the opening piece is the nuanced theme very akin to Kermode's disorganised notion of time that ''time like water is unpredictable'' and Kermode's apocalyptic nature of thoughts that both ''personal memory and public history are unreliable'' and tend to be veiled under human sense of comfort.
Without giving the story away it is worth quoting some lines from the book at this stage that resonates of Kermode's theories-
''What was the point of having a situation worthy of fiction if the protagonist didn't behave as he would have done in a book?'', and ''would that have been less like literature and too much like a kids' story?''
As they grow up, we now see them at the university. This part of their life is very much consumed by the rather detailed desciption of the failed relationship between Tony Webster and Veronica, a girl of precocious personality including Tony's attempt to meet his girlfriend's kin. When Tony visits Veronica's home he is treated with utter disdain both, by Veronica's father and brother but rather kindly by her mother. The torn relationship goes no further with Veronica spurning and meeting his advances as per her whims and fancies blaming her split personality on her family.
So why does a perfect sane man constantly chases a dream which he himself is so usure of. Why does he not let her go.
These things do come out in the latter half of the book. Tony is now 60 yrs of age, divorced and retired passing his time giving away something to the society from which he pretty much took little except the sense to live within the rules of middle class morality. In this sense the novella is quite Victorian.
This mid-life monotonous misery is broken when he receives a bequest from Veronica's mother, a lady whom he had met just once on that disastrous visit to her home amidst that clumsy relationship where he had been insulted by everyone except Mrs Ford, Veronica's mother.
What follows next in the story is what Kermode's theory of fiction was all about - time and apocalyptic modes of thought. Tony starts diving deep into the depth of his memories. A better part of the narrative is now devoted to Tony's re-examination of the past, partly lost in the labrynthine quirks of time and partly remembered to please his sense of comfort with those events.
After Tony had broken up with Veronica, she had been Adrian's girl. Adrian was his intelligent and brilliant childhood friend whose prowess of the mind was as advanced as Tony's mediocrity. This sense of his relationship ending and then conjoined to his best friend had stirred his suppressed emotions and he had angrily shot a letter of untold maliciousness, a thing he regretted all along.
After 40 years he was again in possession of this letter and all the missed opportunities he could at once remember. He had not been able to fulfil his sexual desire for Veronica having only touched some raw chords fumbling through layers of cloth. "Part of me hadn't minded not 'going the whole way,' ", he concludes. He had thought then that abstinence would protect him from answering 'where the relationship is going' question.
Tony by now had come to know of the tragedies befallen to his Veronica and Adrian. His investgation into his memories to make sense of these tragic unfoldings and his attempts to link the past to the present makes interesting reading into how one layer of memory unfolds to yet another till you make sense of the memory that you desire to retain and justify. More answers lead to yet more questions till you realise that you live your life without having a sense of it.
"It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age: when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others.". All recollections are thus.
It is pertinent reality that one does not become an expert on one's own life despite living though it. And as with Tony.
Adrian did say once in youth that "History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.". Tony recalling his own failed relationship with Veronica ponders whether victor's lie makes history or the loser's self justification of defeat or is it "the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated" for the truth in history can never be corroborated as there are no impartial witnesses.
So Tony's unresolved questions remain thus - buried in the layers of memories.
Was his spiteful letter responsible for Adrian's tragedy but then Adrian had once said that ''Camus maintained that suicide was the only true philosophical question''. Veronica resented the cowardice in Tony which he himself called 'being peaceable'. "I have an instinct for survival, for self-preservation," he concludes.
The Sense of Ending is a short but definitely not perfunctory. It is a deep reflection on life, hence it is not a casual read. It is intense - and the craftiness of the language maintains this intensity right till the end. It certainly needs a re-read to understand the philosophies concealed inside the time-lapse narrative of the protagonist, Tony webster. As with Tony Webster so with the reader - many questions remain unanswered or are lost in the ambiguities of the narrative.
But its brevity makes it perfectly readable and enjoyable, even when it leaves you unsatisfied - seeking answers.
Also reviewed for Ciao UK under same name and title.