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Short, insightful and interesting - an enjoyable, meaningful read
The Sense of an Ending - Julian Barnes
Member Name: aethys
The Sense of an Ending - Julian Barnes
Advantages: 160 pages only, excellently written, gripping story, deep hidden philosphical gems
Disadvantages: slightly melodramatic, ambiguous and unresolved questions, painful at times
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.
Summary: Short concise tale of human memory and recollections.