Monday, September 19, 2011
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
Memory and its fallibility is at the core of Julian Barnes’s novella The Sense of and Ending. Nothing can ever be fixed – not public history, not private biography, not truth, not emotion. Nothing is known for certain. Known knowns, in Rumsfeldian derivation, are nothing of the kind.
Tony Webster, the first-person narrator of the story, is one of a triumvirate of self-satisfied, clearly bright boys in the 1960s whose cozy world is forced to expand to include a fourth, altogether stranger, definitely brighter, boy called Adrian Finn. Where they have read Russell or Wittgenstein, Adrian has read Camus and Nietzsche, where Tony thinks a poem is about a barn owl, Adrian concludes it is about Eros and Thanatos, sex and death. By virtue of his intelligence Adrian becomes the de facto leader of the group and the newly constituted quartet go through school engaging in pretentious intellectual debates in which things are “philosophically self-evident”. The absolute certainty that teenagedom bestows is, for the boys, all-encompassing. Even their History teacher is cowed, telling Adrian that when he retires in five years time, he will provide Adrian with a reference for the job, if he wants it.
The boys grow up, go to university (different ones, Adrian to Cambridge, Tony merely to Bristol) and inevitably the bonds of friendship weaken. Tony takes up with a humourless girl called Veronica who takes him home to her charmless family (father a drunk, brother arrogant, mother strange) and their relationship appears to be as devoid of love as it certainly is (to Tony’s chagrin) of sex. They split up. They have sex. They split up again. Adrian writes to Tony to say that he and Veronica have begun seeing one another and hoping that Tony doesn’t object. Furiously, but somewhat inconsistently for such an equivocal character, Tony does object. He writes to say so, finishes his studies (a 2:1, steady from this steadiest of Eddys) and goes to America for six months. When he returns, he discovers that Adrian has committed suicide, leaving behind an eloquent suicide note explaining that he had not asked for life and had made the philosophical decision to renounce the gift. Tony regards this as heroic.
At this point the novella moves into the present, with Tony a retired, divorced, balding plodder through life. What follows is a slow unfurling of the past. A plot McGuffin is thrown in – Veronica’s mother dies and leaves Tony £500 and Adrian’s diary. This immediately begs one howlingly obvious question that would appear to have only one possible answer, but the reader is advised not to spend time thinking about it because to do so ruins the twist in the ending, which I’m afraid I found utterly predictable.
Before we reach this point, however, we are given a tour of the more outlandish behaviour characteristics of the seriously dysfunctional. All one can say about Tony and Veronica is that they deserve one another: two human beings less able to master the art of communication it is difficult to imagine. Veronica sets up a meeting, listens to Tony expatiate and walks away without a word. She takes him to an obscure location and confronts him with what appears to be a care-in-the-community day outing and when he, not unreasonably, appears uncertain as to the point of this, she accuses him of understanding nothing. She is so taken with this accusation she hurls it at him at every subsequent opportunity.
Perhaps I’m unfair on Barnes. Perhaps it is unfortunate that I’ve read this meditation on age and understanding and forgiveness in such close proximity to reading Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, an altogether weightier work which also ponders those same questions. But The Sense of an Ending has been nominated for The Man Booker Prize. Indeed, it is the bookies’ favourite. Robinson won the Pulitzer Prize for Gilead. Barnes should not win the Booker for The Sense of an Ending. It is a decent book, but it is in no way special. I don’t believe it represents the best in current fiction. It doesn't even represent the best of Julian Barnes.