The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (Jonathan Cape, 2011)
Once in a while, you come across a novel that expresses universal ideas with such perceptive clarity that it influences the way you view the world.
And if that sounds pretentious, then you don’t read enough. As Morrissey famously observed, there’s more to life than books, but not much more.
Julian Barnes’ 2011 novel The Sense of an Ending is, at 150 pages, a relatively slight book yet its ideas resonate long after its final sentence has died away. To attempt to sum the work up in a sentence is to do it a disservice, but it is essentially a meditation on growing older and on the ways in which memory is affected by the passage of time. It poses two fundamental questions: what can we say that we remember with absolute certainty from our past, and how on earth can we corroborate it?
The story’s narrator, Tony Webster, is a retired arts administrator who has sought only to make his life “peaceable”. He’s doing quite well until his equilibrium is disrupted by an apparently inexplicable bequest from the mother of an ex-girlfriend and, as he tries to understand the reasons for it, he is forced to examine, systematically, the course of his life and its relationships. In doing so, he comes to realise that what we call memory is unreliable and consists principally of the stories we tell ourselves to reconcile the events in our past with the circumstances of our present.
His friendships at a boys’ grammar school in the late ’fifties, his university course, his marriage and his career all come under scrutiny and we see how character is initially formed and subsequently changed in the ebb and flow of experience over time. The over-powering and sometimes vindictive emotions he felt as a student are completely absent in the man he has become, but how does he begin to atone for the distress his younger self caused? When he says of his early married life, “we thought we were being mature when we were only being safe”, he discovers that the rational decision making on which he assumes his life-choices are based is no better than a self-serving retrospective illusion.
There is a very carefully worked out plot, with a final twist that will surprise all but the most alert of readers, although some will call it contrived. You may also find one or more of the characters by turns insufferably smug, infuriating or simply too close to stereotype for comfort. The real strength of this beautiful book, however, is the elegance with which Barnes explores the extent to which we must all take responsibility for the consequences of our earlier, often ill-considered, actions.
This novel probably won’t mean much to you if you’re under forty because, as the young Tony often sings to himself, Ti-yi-yi-yime is on your side; if, on the other hand, you are of a certain age, you will be moved by Tony’s odyssey of self-discovery and, pretentious or not, it will make you think.