Thursday, January 12, 2012
Book Review - Booker Winners - The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes’ 2011 Booker prize winning novella, is his fourteenth work of fiction, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s also one of his best. The book is narrated by, and centers around, Tony Webster, a man who is now in his mid-sixties and forced by circumstance to look back on his life forty or so years ago, and to remember people and events he thought he’d left far behind.
Tony’s an uncomplicated man, or so he likes to think, who only wanted an uncomplicated life. “I had wanted life not to bother me too much, and had succeeded – and how pitiful that was.” To that end, Tony’s one and only friend is his ex-wife, Margaret, a woman with “clear edges,” with whom Tony remains on excellent terms. Indeed, Margaret seems to be the only person with whom Tony has any human contact, and Tony doesn’t seem bothered by that. Even post-divorce, Tony remains a man who chooses safety over risk. “I recycle; I clean and decorate my flat to keep its value. I’ve made my will, and my dealings with my daughter, son-in-law, grandchildren and ex-wife are, if less than perfect, at least settled.”
Tony’s life becomes unsettled and rather more complicated than he’d like when he receives an unexpected bequest of £500 and a diary from the mother of an old school chum, and, one could say, Tony’s first love, Veronica Ford. Tony has no idea why Veronica’s mother, Sarah, would give him such a bequest. He only met her once, and he remembers her as “a carefree, rather dashing woman who broke an egg, cooked me another, and told me not to take any [guff] from her daughter.” So, Tony does what many people would do, he seeks out Veronica, after forty long years, in search of answers.
Veronica, you see has “stolen” the diary left to Tony, which belonged to yet another old chum of Tony’s, Adrian Finn, an idealistic, Camus-reading, young man who committed suicide at the very young age of twenty-two, years ago, and she’s refusing, with the exception of one enigmatic page, to give the diary to Tony. Adrian, Tony remembers, always did have romantic notions about suicide, even leaving a note that said that “life is a gift bestowed without anyone asking for it” and if a person decides to renounce that gift, “it is a moral and human duty to act on the consequences of that decision.”
Part One of The Sense of an Ending takes place forty years in the past, and we get to know the young Tony, and the young Adrian, as well as the young Veronica, the woman who was first the girlfriend of Tony, then the lover of Adrian. We also get a glimpse of Veronica’s mother, a woman who just might – or might not – have stolen Adrian away from her own daughter.
Tony’s reminiscences and remembrances of his early life seem pretty straightforward, and the reader has no reason to doubt what he reports. In school, Tony looked up to Adrian, though he did not emulate him. The two boys parted ways when Adrian went off to Cambridge and Tony went off to a far less distinguished university. Tony’s affair, such as it was, with Veronica came to a bad end, and Adrian, the gentleman, wrote to Tony and asked his permission to date Veronica himself. Then, for reasons unknown to Tony, Adrian committed suicide.
Part Two of this slim, little book concerns itself with the goings-on once Tony reconnects with Veronica, and these goings-on are far more complicated than Tony’s school days had been.
In Part Two, Veronica has grown into a spiteful, impatient, prickly woman, who hisses and bristles at Tony rather than talk. While this would make a lot of men run the other way, Tony says Veronica’s bad temper leaves him with the desire “to go back to the beginning and change things...make the blood flow backwards,” even knowing full well that it can’t be done.
“You just don’t get it,” hisses Veronica, over and over, and she shows Tony a letter he must have written long ago, though he doesn’t remember doing so, that might explain his one-time girlfriend’s seemingly misplaced hostility.
Bit-by-bit and piece-by-piece, Tony Webster reassembles his youthful past in search of the truth. In doing so, he forms a “chain of individual responsibilities” that seek to explain how his “peaceable” life resulted in “the accumulation, the multiplication, of loss.” Along the way to this reassemblage, however, Tony lets the reader know that there are times when he probably can’t be trusted. He’s not deliberately lying to himself or to the reader, but he’s learned to see things the way he wants to see them, not the way they really are, and memory, after all, is inherently unreliable. “I have an instinct for survival, for self-preservation,” he reflects. “Perhaps this is what Veronica called cowardice and I called being peaceable.” And perhaps this “instinct for survival” is still the driving force in Tony Webster’s personality. “Maybe character freezes sometime between the ages of 20 and 30,” Tony muses. “And after that, we’re just stuck with what we’ve got. We’re on our own. If so, that would explain a lot of lives, wouldn’t it? And also — if this isn’t too grand a word — our tragedy.”
Reliable or unreliable, I found Tony Webster to be an engaging narrator. I liked him, and personally, I did trust him. I guess I just appreciated his candor. Throughout the book, I was on his side, even during those times when he seemed rather misguided. I heartily disliked the shrewish Veronica, and there were several times I just wanted to slap her (though I would never really slap) and tell her to “grow up” or something similar. If Tony didn’t “get it,” then part of the reason he didn’t was Veronica’s fault.
The Sense of an Ending is a beautifully crafted book filled with Barnes’ trademark wit and graceful writing. Some reviewers have called it a book “pervaded by the sense of death.” And yes, characters die in this novella. Adrian and Sarah, most notably, and Tony is very aware that youth is now behind him. But for me, The Sense of An Ending wasn’t so much about death as it was about the unreliability of memory, and the way we have of only remembering that which we want to remember, and perhaps “remembering to forget” the rest. It’s about the way people have of distorting their own past to become, more or less, the past they want it to be rather than the past it is.
But there’s no denying the book is chock-full of weighty subjects. One might think this would cause it to be morbid or depressing, though it isn’t at all. In fact, The Sense of an Ending is surprisingly light on its feet, though I’m not sure anyone should be surprised at that given that the author is Julian Barnes. In previous books, e.g., the novels Love, Etc. and Talking It Over, and the volume of short stories titled The Lemon Table, Barnes wrote about serious subjects, e.g., sexual jealousy and infidelity, age, time, and our eventually mortality, with a characteristically light, even jaunty, touch that made those books a joy to read.
I’ve already mentioned Barnes’ graceful writing and his trademark wit. His writing is also precise and economical. Barnes is a writer who doesn’t write one word more or one word less than he needs to write, and though graceful, his writing contains no frills. Here’s Tony after witnessing the Severn Bore surge wave:
I don't think I can properly convey the effect that moment had on me. It wasn't like a tornado or an earthquake (not that I'd witnessed either) — nature being violent and destructive, putting us in our place. It was more unsettling because it looked and felt quietly wrong, as if some small lever of the universe had been pressed, and here, just for these minutes, nature was reversed and time with it. And to see this phenomenon after dark made it the more mysterious, the more other-worldly.
The Sense of an Ending may be a short book, but don’t let its brevity fool you. It’s dense and complex and filled with philosophical musings and reflections. If it’s “just a good story” you’re looking for, one heavy on plot, you won’t find that here. The plot of this book is, on its surface, a simple one, though the peeling back of layer-after-layer of Tony’s life adds a depth and a richness to this novel not ordinarily found in books three or four times its length.
I know some readers who had problems with this book’s ending. I wasn’t one. The two revelations were, at least in my estimation, natural, and they happened in the most natural of ways. I didn’t sense any contrivance about the book’s conclusion.
In summing up the events of the novel, Tony Webster says:
And that’s a life, isn’t it? Some achievements and some disappointments. It’s been interesting to me, though I wouldn’t complain or be amazed if others found it less so. Maybe, in a way, Adrian knew what he was doing. Not that I would have missed my own life for anything, you understand.
I felt I was in good company with Tony Webster, and I’m glad I didn’t miss the part of his life he chose to reveal to me.
Recommended: For mature (not necessarily "older") readers who like character driven books as opposed to plot driven stories. Not too much happens in this book in the way of plot, though the book’s protagonist, Tony Webster, sets about examining his entire life to date.