In the Sense of an Ending

Julian Barnes won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction with his book The Sense of an Ending.

In his boyhood in the 1950s, Tony Webster remembers, adolescence felt like a holding pen where the young were imprisoned for what seemed like eternity. Finally they were released into adulthood and permitted to confront the experiences that would make their lives serious and important: passion, ecstasy, danger and despair.

But Tony’s adult years haven’t worked out as planned. He’s the disappointed central figure in The Sense of an Ending (Random House), the wise and clever novel that recently won the Man Booker Prize for Julian Barnes. An English arts bureaucrat, likeable but a bit dense, Tony is a familiar figure in the history of literature. He’s the unreliable narrator, a character type that goes back at least to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. His evasions often remind us that anyone who willingly tells his story, even if he admits he’s unsure of the details, may well be delivering a processed and censored version of events, calculated to hide crucial information and show the teller in the best possible light.

Tony has never felt the sense of emotional depth that he expected as part of mature life. Now, in his sixties, he’s begun to think that this may have been his own fault. Caution was his problem. He’s always done everything he could to avoid emotional bruising: “I wanted life not to bother me too much.” He now thinks that such devotion to prudence sounds pathetic. “What did I know of life, I who had lived so carefully?” He remembers cherishing his instinct for survival. “Perhaps this is what Veronica called cowardice and I called being peaceable.”

Veronica was his first college girlfriend. She was attractive, bright, intimidating and manipulative. He steered away from her but after four decades he thinks of her often and finds himself involved with her again.
On the novel’s 12th page Barnes puts his theme in the mouth of a boy in Tony’s history class.

When the master asks a question about judging evidence, this student neatly defines the problem: “We need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us.”

He’s Adrian Finn, much the cleverest boy in the class, certainly the most observant. He sums up one side of English culture in what may be a criticism of Tony: “I hate the way the English have of not being serious about being serious, I really hate it.” Tony also recalls an ominous comment of Adrian’s: “Camus said that suicide was the only true philosophical question.

Adrian becomes part of Tony’s story; he’s the lover of Veronica after Tony gives her up. Veronica and her family have major roles as well. But Barnes maintains a tight focus on Tony. We know only what he knows or what he says he knows — and what we can guess. Certainly we can’t assume that past events unfolded just as Tony admits to remembering them. Here and there Barnes hints at which lines we should be scrutinizing with special care. This short book appears to contain not a single unnecessary word, which makes readers exceptionally attentive.

For instance, Adrian writes to Tony to say that he is dating Veronica. Tony, when recounting his response, vaguely paraphrases his letter of reply. Some readers will wonder whether the lack of details shows he’s evading something he finds too painful.
Tony admits he’s trying to find out exactly what sort of man he has been. And we are there, horrified yet sympathetic, as he awakens to a painfully clear view of himself. The energy in the book flows from Tony’s anxious efforts to understand Tony.

A secret lies encased within the story and Tony knows no more about it than we do. He thinks he’s uncovered it, then realizes that he’s misread the evidence. Finally someone spells it out for him. Careful foreshadowing has led us somewhere into the general region of the truth but it finally arrives on the page with an abruptness that’s both disquieting and satisfying in the same moment.
Barnes has borrowed the odd-sounding title of his book from a much-admired work of criticism, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction (1967), by the late Frank Kermode. We make stories to impose a logical order on our always illogical lives, Kermode argued. A story humanizes the rushing, incoherent passage of time, making it clear and concrete enough for humans to grasp. Barnes doesn’t mention Kermode in the text but it’s clear that the title is an homage to a critic who understood issues that concern Barnes. Even on the book’s first page, Barnes includes a Kermode phrase.

Certain characters have secrets they can’t keep themselves from telling. In Flaubert’s Parrot, the book that made Barnes’ reputation, a cranky middle-aged doctor explains in marvellous detail his obsession with the work of Gustav Flaubert and in particular his idiosyncratic search for the stuffed parrot that Flaubert kept on his desk while writing a story involving a parrot. An amusing hobby, perhaps, but eventually a sense of dread creeps in between the lines and we realize that the doctor is worrying about something he finds hard to mention — his wife’s betrayal of him and her eventual suicide.

These unreliable narrators typically draw us slowly toward the core of a story, usually through a series of hints. Among modern writers, the star performers in this field have included Ford Madox Ford (The Good Soldier), Vladimir Nabokov (Pale Fire) and Agatha Christie (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd). One of the most beloved of American novels, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, has a narrator who is so enamoured of Jay Gatsby that he can’t see his flaws, which a reader easily notices.

A central character who doesn’t quite remember the past and claims it isn’t clear to him could be boring. But that’s never among Tony’s faults. One of the world’s best writers has not only devised the details of Tony’s life and his way of telling them, but also made him a character with whom we can identify. At the end of this masterly psychological page turner, some of us may be so enchanted that we’ll decide we are all unreliable narrators of our own lives, evaders, perjurers, false witnesses, every one of us. That is, after all, how storytelling is born.

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