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[640] The Sense of An Ending – Julian Barnes

1ending

” It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age: when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others. ” (Part Two, p.80)

The second time around The Sense of An Ending is even more hard-going. The subject matter is heavy and grim despite the short length of the book. It’s a mystery of memory and missed opportunity. Right off the bat the reader knows Tony Webster, who narrates in first-person voice, is unreliable. The unreliability is not a result of aging, but a deliberate effort on his part to avoid things rather than facing them. He’s a cautious, divorced man in his 60s who “had wanted life not to bother me too much, and had succeeded.” (99). He receives an unexpected bequest from a woman he’d met only once, some 40 years earlier. The mother of his college girlfriend, Veronica, has bequeathed him a legacy that unsettles him, forcing him to get in touch with Veronica and seek answers to certain unresolved questions.

I suppose it’s possible to be nostalgic about remembered pain as well as remembered pleasure. And that opens the field, doesn’t it? It also leads straight to the matter of Miss Veronica Ford. (Part Two, p.81)

The matter involves a diary of his best friend, Adrian Finn, for whom Veronica left Tony. The relationship ended very badly and Tony wrote Adrian and Veronica a vitriolic letter. Had he loved her? At the time, it was an emotion he had lacked the spine to own up to. As Tony assembles his willfully forgotten past impressions and actions, it’s obvious that he has been spineless his whole life. He has lived so carefully, avoids being hurt and calls it a capacity for survival. His life’s modest wages have resulted in the accumulation, the multiplication of loss, quoting his word. So his tragedy really is not the damage he has caused others, but the fact that he avoids deep connection rather than embracing it, for fear of risking its loss.

One whose self-rebukes never really inflicted pain? Well, there was all this to reflect upon, while I endured a special kind of remorse: a hurt inflicted at long last on one who always thought he knew how to avoid being hurt—and inflicted for precisely that reason. (Part Two, p.142)

Remorse is the whole point of The Sense of An Ending. Tony Webster is more than the unreliable narrator—he is a total mystery to himself, clueless of the damage incurred on others while he is concerned only to avoid conflict, pain, and hurt. He plays safe but that’s just cowardice. The novel is beautifully written, full of the narrator’s own conversation bubbles. It reads a like short story infused with mislaid facts and suppressed memories that resurface at the whim of his mind. The corroboration he seeks only comes as a painful revelation of how he just resembles the people he fears.

150 pp. Vintage Books. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

8 Responses

  1. matthew d u have a fb account?

  2. I’ve had this book on my iPod forever, and have been a little scared to read it. So many people have commented on how much effort it took to get through it, and there is always an issue with the ending and not understanding it. I guess when I finally jump into it, I’ll have to have help!

    • It’s literary fiction at its best. I can only tell you how much I was nodding my head when the narrator talks about assimilation through language. It gives me a different perspective of the melting pot that America is.

  3. Interesting that you reread this now. Our reading group also re-read and rediscussed this last week. The second reading was easier and more enlightening than the first. Less sympathy and more criticism for Tony now. Also a greater appreciation for the high level of Barnes’ craftsmanship. Tony and his characteristics are not rare, neither in our society nor in our own personalities.

    • I reread because it’s a book club selection and I don’t remember much of it! I must have skimped through it the first time since I was traveling when I acquired the book. Second time around it’s a closer look to ugliness of humanity. The effect is one of shock but also sympathy, with both the meter of the harshness and the victim.

  4. I can’t say I particularly found this a hard novel to wade through but it left me feeling pretty bleak. It is such a cleverly constructed novel and a beautiful book visually, but holds many ugly truths within its covers.

    • I enjoy Barnes’ writing style. It’s very contemplative but also very clipped. Recently I finished another book that was long-listed for Booker that year, The Lighthouse, and coincidentally that book deals with the similar subject matter. It’s about reflecting on one’s past and feeling the best had gone by. There was a sense of regret and loss.

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