Articles & Reviews – The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

SPOILER ALERT: this review gives away key plot twists in the book so turn your eyes away now.

‘Memory is not the opposite of forgetting’, Milan Kundera has remarked, ‘rather, it is a kind of forgetting.’ At times, Julian Barnes’s eleventh novel, The Sense of an Ending, winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize, seems to be a slightly too exhaustive, and a good deal too heavy-handed, or oversignalled, if you will, an exploration of that thought.

Written from the vantage point of old age, which, it is hinted, are most likely the winter years of the life of Tony Webster, Barnes’s first-person narrator, the short, crisp, precise novel at first fools you into thinking that it’s a meditation on ageing and mortality and the treacherous domain of memory, a sort of wry, dry, appropriately diminutive English variant of the short novels Philip Roth has been producing of late: The Dying Animal, Exit Ghost, Everyman, Indignation, Nemesis. The title itself, a nod to Frank Kermode’s dense critical work, published in 1967, on how fiction attempts to give form to the flux that is time, is more deceptive than it appears. Rereading Kermode’s book nearly twenty years after I first tussled with it as a green undergraduate, I’m so struck by the hinges between Barnes’s novel and the earlier work that it is difficult to escape the thought that Barnes is opening up a conversation with the critical essay. Here is Kermode talking about how literature imposes a false paradigm on time:
“The clock’s ‘tick-tock’ I take to be a model of what we call a plot, an organisation which humanises time by giving it a form; and the interval between ‘tock’ and ‘tick’ represents purely successive, disorganised time of the sort we need to humanise.” Now read the first page of the novel.

Or this:
“We live with such easy assumptions, don’t we? For instance, that memory equals events plus time. But it’s all much odder than this. Who was it said that memory is what we thought we’d forgotten? And it ought to be obvious to us that time doesn’t act as a fixative, rather as a solvent. But it’s not convenient – it’s not useful – to believe this; it doesn’t help us get on with our lives; so we ignore it.”

Or how about the following:
“How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life.”

For a book that weighs in at 150 pages, just, much heavy weather is made of such faux-philosophising; the thoughts are not exactly original. It is these frequent passages that dupe us into thinking that the book is going to be one of those fictional meditations on time, such as Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo, that jiggles the kaleidoscope of reality (and the possibilities of fiction) into a new shape. Not only is it no such thing but it also transpires that these oversignallings serve only to provide a respectable fig-leaf for that old, old friend: a literary mystery story. How English it seems, this commute from the lofty to the pedestrian, masquerading as profound. The mystery narrative has all the right ingredients – the unreliable/forgetful narrator; a suicide; a burnt diary; missing letters; a character who keeps saying to Tony, ‘You just don’t get it at all, do you? You never did’, a club-footed way of indicating to readers that they don’t get it either and that a Revelation is going to come along soon that is going to turn the fictional world upside down for them. (A not entirely irrelevant aside: Barnes has written, under the nom de plume Dan Kavanagh, four crime-fiction novels featuring a detective named Duffy.)

Three friends at school allow the newcomer Adrian to become part of their group. Adrian, they discover, has a sharper mind than theirs and has that quality so utterly rare among the English, of being serious about serious things, although the core of this serious new friend seems to be unknowable and unreachable. Part of this territory Barnes has traversed before, with witty astringency, in his first novel, Metroland. After school, Tony goes to university in Bristol and Adrian to Cambridge. At Bristol, Tony has a brief and rebarbative relationship – although non-relationship would be a more accurate term – with Veronica, who, shortly after their acrimonious breakup, starts going out with Adrian, a fact Tony only discovers when Adrian writes to him to ask him for permission to do so. Tony writes him a facetious card to the effect of ‘Be my guest’ and, later, a more considered, serious letter. He spends a year travelling in the USA then returns home to the news of Adrian’s suicide. From this point onwards Barnes masterfully compresses the events in Tony’s life that are not germane to this particular story – steady job; marriage to Margaret; birth of daughter, Susie; divorce; retirement – to two pages then moves on to Part Two, where the long shadow of the past with Veronica and Adrian falls over Tony’s life again.

A bequest of £500 and some ‘documents’ from the recently-deceased Sarah Ford, Veronica’s mother, whom Tony had met only once, on a weekend visit to Veronica’s family in the brief period they were seeing each other in university, reawakens the past and Tony’s curiosity, not least because the ‘document’, which Tony discovers from the solicitor is Adrian’s diary, has been withheld by Veronica. He doggedly pursues Veronica, whom he hasn’t seen since they split up, into giving them to him. The tension is ratcheted up. Why does Veronica give him only one page of Adrian’s diary? The page contains some pretty dodgy cod-philosophising, arranged like the propositions of a tract on logic to fool readers into thinking that they’re getting Wittgenstein redux. A later elucidation of the symbols used in the page serves only to highlight, unintentionally, the bathos involved in applying analytical philosophy to the events of a private life but more on this later.

Then there is Veronica, already an intensely annoying creature (and surely the character whose actions are the least credible), who does not help her cause, nor Tony’s, by repeatedly stating that he doesn’t get things, that he never did. To substantiate this, she gives him a copy of the serious letter he wrote to Adrian and Veronica shortly after finding out that they were going out. The letter, of which Tony has no memory, comes as a jet of cold water between his eyes. It is gratuitously cruel and petty, and Tony, thinking that this is what drove Adrian over the edge, is afflicted by severe remorse. Another round of determined pursual of the remarkably unyielding Veronica follows, this time to apologise and try to make amends. Nested disclosures follow and I’m going to reveal them because the final twist in the book is the weakest and its great defect. A laconic Veronica, refusing to offer Tony any explanations before, during or afterwards, takes Tony to see a group of what he assumes are care-in-the-community people – people with severe learning difficulties – on a pub outing. One of them, a goofy-looking man of forty but with the mental age of a child, seems especially pleased to see Veronica and calls her Mary. Tony’s persistent questions about who they are, why Veronica has brought him to watch them from her parked car, why the man called her Mary, what their condition is, are all met with steely silence and, finally, ejection from the car.

Tony, determined to find out the truth, follows the group on their next expedition to the pub and talks to their carer. Understanding finally dawns on him: the man who called Veronica Mary is Adrian and Veronica’s son. This causes him much anguish as one of the things he had written in that savage letter was, ‘Part of me hopes you have a child, because I’m a great believer in time’s revenge. But revenge must be on the right people, i.e. you two. … So I don’t wish you that. It would be unjust to inflict on some innocent foetus the prospect of discovering that it was the fruit of your loins, if you’ll excuse the poeticism.’ Be careful of what you wish for, they say; seeing his imprecation embodied like this curdles something in Tony. He writes a heartfelt letter of apology to Veronica again only to be told, yet again, that he still doesn’t get it. So the earlier twist wasn’t the last one, there’s a final turn still to come. In a chance encounter at the same pub some months later, Tony has another conversation with a carer who is minding the same group. It emerges that the disabled man is not Veronica’s son but Adrian’s son with her mother, Sarah. Like pieces in a giant puzzle, everything begins to fall into place for Tony: the goofy man’s condition; the cryptic remarks of Veronica and her taciturnity; Adrian’s suicide; that page from his diary; Sarah Ford’s bequest to Tony, which Veronica had called ‘blood money’.

What doesn’t make sense is the dissonance between the content or exact nature of the illumination and the feelings, indeed the existential crisis, it generates in Tony and, by extension, is supposed to engender in the reader. A man gets his girlfriend’s mother up the duff; the son born to them, at a dangerously late age, is physically and mentally damaged; the man in question kills himself: this may precipitate, if you are the extremely hypersensitive type, as Adrian clearly is, some grave predicament in the culpable man’s life – it’s hardly the stuff of what used to be called la condition humaine – but what are the chances that it induces in this man’s school friend an existential contingency of equal magnitude? For of such proportions it is; no page goes by, particularly in Part Two, when we are not treated to sombre assessments of the Big Things: guilt versus remorse; memory as fiction; the vast human capacity for delusion as a self-protective measure; selfishness that knowledge turns to self-flagellation; the nature of history and time; whether life is a series of accumulations and where responsibility features in it. They are wise, stylish, unpretentious, if predictable, and emerge organically from plot and character, but you wouldn’t expect anything less from a writer of Barnes’s calibre. It is when you stand back and ask yourself what has given rise to such meditations, the disproportionate nature of it can only lead to anticlimax; after all, Tony’s crime, if such it can be called, is of obtuseness and inadvertent insensitivity, venial matters in the grand design of things. It is true that Tony is an unreliable narrator but even here Barnes seems to be lagging behind the lethally effective revivifications of this other hoary old device in fiction that, say, Ishiguro’s novels or Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal have achieved. After all, a lot of Tony’s ignorance is caused by Veronica’s cussed behaviour (but then if she did come clean from the very beginning there would be no novel).

Or is this matter of disproportionality, which has the unfortunate effect of making the book less than the sum of its parts, somehow Tony’s belated internalisation of a kind of intellectual and behavioural rebellion first sounded by Adrian in his first year at university when he baffles his friends and punctures an inalienable aspect of their Englishness by declaring, ‘ “I hate the way the English have of not being serious about being serious. I really hate it.’ ” But to be not only serious about serious things but to also overplay the serious hand to the extent that it brings about an incommensurability between fact and feeling: would that be a liberation from Englishness too?