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on 24 August 2011
Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending
This first person narrative is a study in obsessive guilt. Tony Webster looks back to his first encounter with Adrian Finn, the new boy at school. Adrian is obviously a cut above the rest of the lads; he is serious, logical and inquisitive, destined for great things at Cambridge University. Years later Tony hears of his suicide, a carefully arranged affair, with appropriate notes to family, friends and authorities. He had once told Tony that Camus maintained that suicide was the only true philosophical question. The subject arose when a fellow student, Robson, hanged himself after getting his girlfriend pregnant. What possible connection could there be between the fatal decision of the mediocre student Robson, whose last words read simply `Sorry, Mum' and the signing off of the genius Adrian?
The clue - to that part of the novel at least - lies in the relationship both Tony and Adrian have with a rather classy and prickly girl known as Veronica (later Mary) Ford, whose parents Tony visits for a disastrous week-end in Chislehurst, where he is treated rudely both by Veronica's father and her brother Jack, but kindly by Mrs Ford, Veronica's mother. Only in his later years, which absorb most of the second part of this slim novel, does Tony - and possibly the reader - begin to `get it' as Veronica continually puts it about her family situation. By then we have learned of an insulting letter Tony had written to the unhappy pair, Veronica and Adrian, which may or may not have been the trigger that caused his demise. The reader will need to read the novel a second time to pick up on the clues Barnes plants regarding the abortive love affair with the hostile Veronica. In fact the whole book is about unravelling mistaken notions, discovering hidden meanings in past conversations, finding new clues to understanding the self, its delusions and unintended slights with their unforeseen consequences.
I found the book both fascinating and frustrating, as was no doubt the author's intention. It is undoubtedly a clever book, but to me, as with the same author's Flaubert's Parrot, rather too cerebral, lacking the warmth of real human relationships. There are so many things the narrator and reader do not `get'. Why, for instance, should Tony continually pursue a girl, then the girl as woman, who was only using him as a plaything? It makes no sense to him or the reader. Is it sufficient to say that it is the donnée on which the whole book rests, just as other obsessives, like for instance Kemal in The Museum of Innocence or Charles Arrowby in The Sea, The Sea, expend vast energies in pursuit hopeless causes? The difference is that both Pamuk's and Murdoch's novels delve deep into the psyches of their narrators. We understand, sympathise and forgive them, even when they are boring us. At least Barnes's novel is too short to be boring. It is indeed, extremely readable and. in its own way, strangely haunting,