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[640] The Sense of An Ending – Julian Barnes


” 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]

[447] The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes

” What did I know of life, I who had lived so carefully? Who had neither won nor lost, but just let life happen to him? Who had the usual ambitions and settled all too quickly for them not being realized? Who avoided being hurt and called it a capacity for survival? ” (Part Two, 142)

The Sense of an Ending is a literary mystery of memory and missed opportunity. Tony Webster is a cautious, divorced man in his 60s who “had wanted life not to bother him too much” (99) and has succeeded. He never consummated his relationship with Veronica, whom he dated in college, and turned spiteful when she was courted by his best friend, Adrian Finn. When Adrian committed suicide shortly after he graduated, Tony accepted the reason for his terminating life with no doubt—one that was philosophical and apropos of someone who had looked ahead and wider around in life. But there is more Tony never knew, nor would he imagine.

But time . . . how time first grounds us and then confounds us. We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imagined we were being responsible but were only being cowardly. What we called realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things rather than facing them. Time give us enough time and our best-supported decisions will seem wobbly, our certainties whimsical. (Part Two, 93)

He met, married, and eventually divorced from a woman whom he knew he wouldn’t mind losing. He always maintained a distance for fear of risking loss. Avoidance becomes a way of way, a forte. Life for Tony is more about safety than emotional investment. An unexpected bequest (diary of his long-deceased friend Adrian) from an old woman—Veronica’s mother—jolts him out of his complaisant calm and forces him to contend with mislaid facts and memories of his youth. What has begun as a determination to obtain the property bequeathed to him has morphed into something much larger: a haunting awakening and an unwelcome corroboration of what he was, or has been.

But we don’t love many people in this life. One, two, three? And sometimes we don’t recognise the fact until it’s too late. Except that it isn’t necessarily too late. (Part Two, 119-120)

As Tony slowly assembles his willfully forgotten past impressions and actions, the novel sustains a gripping suspense and tension. The origin of the bequest and the truth it beholds make Tony see the fraudulence of his discretion. His fault does not lie in his being chippy, jealous and malign because it’s almost common practice that we’re at our most hurtful being young and sensitive. Tony’s tragedy is that he avoids deep connection rather than embracing it, for fear of risking its loss. Short but definitely not slight, The Sense of an Ending is a poignant portrait of the costs and benefits of time passing, of friendship and love, in particular love, how it validates and vindicates life. The unreliable narrator, safe in his comfort and guard, is a mystery to himself. He becomes the people whom he fears: reacts to hurt by avoiding further damage in life, at whatever cost. How pitiful that the best years are behind him before he’s even understood what life is about.

150 pp. Vintage UK Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]