Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

This is one of those books that stays with you long after you've finished reading it. Although it is a story about one man's memories of youth, relationships and life, his insights could apply to anyone who's clocked more than a few decades on the planet. To say I love his writing is an understatement; the structure and wording of his sentences flows as seamlessly as if you yourself are thinking them. It is writing as art.

But enough gushing. I need to talk about the story and characters.


What was Veronica's problem at the end, and why was she so angry? Why could she not just recognize Tony's ill-conceived letter as youthful, childish indiscretion? Sure it was nasty, but he was young and hurting and lashing out. She had no business *blaming* him for the course the next forty years of her life took, or for Adrian's suicide, or for her mother's cougar-ish pursuits. I kept waiting (hoping? expecting?) for Veronica to cut him some slack or, at the very least, spell out for him just what his 'crimes' were. But all she kept saying was 'You just don't get it, do you,' which was so blatantly passive-aggressive it made me want to scream. But alas, if all those tidy and convenient things had come to pass The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes would not have been such a fantastic read. For as much as I rail against the Veronicas of the literary world, I do love the conundrums and twisty endings that usually come with them. Indeed, in the deft hands of a gifted author it is the very reason I read and love books at all.

Tony Webster and his clique first met Adrian Finn at school. Sex-hungry, book-hungry, they would navigate their girl-less adolescence together, trading in affection, in-jokes, rumour and wit. Maybe Adrian was a little more serious than the others, certainly more intelligent, but they all swore to stay friends for life. 
Now Tony is retired. He's had a career and a single marriage, a calm divorce. He's certainly never tried to hurt anybody. Memory, though, is imperfect. It can always throw up surprises as a lawyer's letter is about to prove.
The Sense of an Ending is the story of one man coming to terms with the mutable past. Laced with Barnes's trademark precision, dexterity and insight, it is the work of one of the worlds most distinguished writers. (inside flap)

There was nothing to distract us from our human and filial duty which was to study, pass exams, use those qualifications to find a job, and then put together a way of life unthreateningly fuller than that of out parents, who would approve, while privately comparing it to their own lives, which had been simpler and therefore superior. pg8

This was hopeless. In a novel, Adrian wouldn't just have accepted things as they were put to him. 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? Adrian should have gone snooping, or saved up his pocket money and employed a private detective; perhaps all four of us should have gone off on a Quest to Discover the Truth. Or would that have been less like literature and too much like a kids' story? pg16

History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation. pg17

I expect such recreational behaviour will strike later generations as quite unremarkable, both for nowadays and for back then: after all, wasn't 'back then' the Sixties? Yes it was, but as I said, it depended on where - and who - you were. If you'll excuse a brief history lesson: most people 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, bits of both decades side by side. pg40

Also, when you are young, you think you can predict the likely pains and bleakness that age might bring. You imagine yourself being lonely, divorced, widowed; children growing away from you, friends dying. You imagine the loss of status, the loss of desire - and desirability. You may go further and consider your own approaching death, which, despite what company you may muster, can only be faced alone. But all this is looking ahead. What you fail to do is look ahead, and then imagine yourself looking back from that future point. Learning the new emotions that time brings. Discovering, for example, that as the witnesses to your life diminish, there is less corroboration, and therefore less certainty, as to what you are or have been. Even if you have assiduously kept records - in words, sound, pictures - you may find that you have attended the wrong kind of record-keeping. pg59

When you are in your twenties, even if you're confused and uncertain about your aims and purposes, you have a strong sense of what life itself is, and of what you in life are, and might become. Later . . . later there is more uncertainty, more overlapping, more back-tracking, more false memories. Back then you can remember your short life in its entirety. Later, the memory becomes a thing of shreds and patches. pg104

I thought I could overcome contempt and turn remorse back into guilt, then be forgiven. I had been tempted, somehow, by the notion that we could excise most of our separate existences, could cut and splice the magnetic tape on which out lives are recorded, go back to that fork in the path and take the road less travelled, or rather not travelled at all. pg131


Stepping Out of the Page said...

This is such a thoughtful, fantastic review! I had meant to get around to finding a copy of this as soon as I heard that it won the Booker Prize. Thanks for reminding me to pick a copy up from the library :) I hope I like it as much as you did!

Stephanie @ Stepping Out of the Page
Remember to drop by my International Giveaway!

Sam (Tiny Library) said...

Just skimmed this as I haven't read it yet (although I want to). I think the fact you put in so many quotes is definitely a good sign for future readers :)

Beth said...

Had to stop reading this post. Just started the book last night.

Tracy said...

Warning - huge numbers of spoilers in this comment!

I thought this book was wonderful, and I agree, it's one that stays with you. Veronica is a complete cow, true, but Tony Webster is a total w****r, an assessment implicit in the text throughout the novel from the beginning! Veronica had to cope with the fallout for forty years, she's been constantly punished, and Tony? He was out of it, in America to start with, then getting on with his life, completely oblivious. No, she doesn't actually blame him for everything, but it's his lack of awareness that really angers her. Since the first part of this book is effectively the reasons for WWI and the second part is WWII - the factors leading to WWI have had tomes written about them by numerous historians, and they still don't agree - all you can conclude in this book is that all parties share some of the blame for the outcome - Finn - the Gavrilo Princip - well, he wasn't firing blanks!- My Moral Sciences, hah! Veronica for being such a tease, the mother for her actions - she certainly deserves some of the blame, the father - did his alcoholism drive his wife to look at her daughter's boyfriend?

Sorry, Trish, I've been discussing this book with one of my bookclub friends for weeks - we still don't agree about the meaning of the cheque!

Trish said...

Thanks Stephanie! At 150 pages it's a fairly quick read. Hopefully you'll get to it soon.

Trish said...

Yes, the quotes! His writing is sublime.

Trish said...

I'm looking forward to hear your take on it when you're done.

Trish said...

This book is so ripe for discussion, isn't it? My hub pointed out that I seem so fixated on Veronica whereas he had more of a problem with Tony being so daft and oblivious. But somehow I find Tony's actions more forgivable than Veronica's. No one could have predicted that what Tony wrote in that immature rant of a letter would come true, or that Veronica would spend the rest of her life dealing with the fallout. That's fate. I would have understood her being upfront and cross with him upon their first meeting after forty years, but then she should for heavens sake also acknowledge how randomly sh**ty life can be, and that we all fall short of perfection. And she did, after all, burn the diary which I thought a pretty childish and petulant thing to do herself. She doesn't have to be 'friends' with Tony after that, but there really isn't anything to gain or change from remaining so angry. And, as you mentioned, there were other characters in the story who are by no means blameless themselves. Where do they fall on her anger scale, I wonder. And, yes, there's also the question of the cheque . . .

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...


I loved this one - it was my first read of 2012 and a great way to start the new year. terrific review.

Trish said...

Nothing like starting the year off right!

Tracy said...

It's a question of the evidence, isn't it? Who do you believe? We see this from Tony's POV, a man who is highlighted by the author from the first sentence as being a complete tosser. Veronica is also a bit of a tosser, it transpires, and as for Adrian Finn! - none of these characters is at all likeable. We just have very little information about the other characters, including the key one of Sarah Ford.

If you look at the people who were most hurt, top of the list is Adrian Finn, who died, then Veronica, the baby, Veronica's mother and her father, her brother would also have been affected. The entire Ford family, a life sentence. Can you not understand why she was so angry?

Dear Tony wasn't affected at all, he went and found an American girlfriend or was it two? (I don't have the book with me) - easy come, easy go!- then headed back to Blightly, got married and got on with his life - after firing that first shot (maybe he should have been Gavrilo Princip? Adrian included him in that appalling equation) He's now a voyeur on other people's problems and he's blundering around with insufficient information.

History - the lies of the victors, the self-delusions of the defeated?

But yes, it's an excellent one for a bookclub - so much to discuss, packing into just 150 pages.

Tracy said...

Yes Diane, it's wonderful that so many bookbloggers are reading this one/have read it recently.

Trish said...

Yes, but the reason Tony didn't stick around was that there was nothing left for him there. Once he had broken up with Veronica, he was done with the whole family and Adrian. Tony was not responsible for anyone else's actions after he wrote that horrid letter. Veronica had a right to be angry, yes, but at life! and fate! rather than silly, ignorant Tony.

We only have Tony's memory of events, which we see wasn't very reliable regarding his youthful relationship with Veronica. So perhaps one could also assume he wasn't remembering other aspects of his life very well, either. The whole gist of the book, after all, is how unreliable our memories can be. It's possible he deluded himself (and us readers) into believing he was a 'peaceable' guy when he might actually have been quite the opposite as evidenced by the letter. Without any more information, we'll never really know.

Tracy said...

Well, I doubt we'll ever agree on that - but I think we can both agree that it's a brilliant piece of fiction that really gets people talking :)

Trish said...

It's been an enjoyable discussion that's had me thinking about this story day and night. But, yes, we'll probably have to agree to disagree regarding Tony and Veronica. It's fabulous when an author has that kind of hold on their readers, isn't it? What a book!

Kailana said...

I didn't end up loving this book. It was a bit too quiet for me... It is well-written and such.

Trish said...

Yes, I can see that. Most of the 'action' is more just memories of times past.