There can be no doubt that Julian Barnes is a fine writer--Arthur and George, Pulse etc. etc. Here with this 2011 Man Booker Prize winner he proves it once again. This is a fairly short novel, but long on pure enjoyment.
It begins with Tony and his close circle of friends at school joined by a new boy Adrian who shines academically, but is a little removed from the rest and a bit of a mystery. Enter Veronica, during their student days, Tony's first serious girlfriend. He has genuine feelings for her although he senses a holding back on her part and not just sexual.However like any healthy male Tony diligently tries to persuade her to "go all the way". How quaint that phrase now sounds. You see although it is the early swinging 60's it did not swing for everyone and moral values and attitudes were for the most part still stuck back in the austere 50's. An uncomfortable weekend with her family causes him to re-asses their relationship. They split and to Tony's hurt and anger Adrian moves in on her. To reveal more detail would be unfair, suffice to say that Tony's rather uneventful life moves on loosing touch with his school and university mates, until in his contented if rather lonely 60's out of nowhere comes a reason to contact Veronica once more. A strained correspondence and even more strained meetings take place when she tells him:
"You just don't get it, you never did" What does he just not get? This fills the second part of the book and I had to resist the strong temptation to turn to the last few pages for the solution. Of course I didn't, but the suspense kept me frantically reading the last 60 or so pages non stop until it all fell into place.
Great insight to the class structure, moral and physical restraints, education and family life at a time not so long ago when they were so very different. Over and above the intriguing main story there are interesting side issues and Tony's inward philosophising and general rambling observations are both humorous and fascinating.
Best read in a long time
"The Sense of an Ending" is almost more of a novella - it's a slim volume but exquisitely written, as you might expect from Julian Barnes. It starts off describing the relationships between four friends at school, narrated by one of the friends, Tony Webster, but quickly it becomes clear that this is written many years later. Barnes has long been a terrific observer of the English middle classes and his style invariably contains satire and dry humour. And this being Barnes, this school clique is intellectual in interest, as the narrator recalls English and History teachers and student philosophising.
Tony is a middle class everyman. He's unexceptional and his subsequent life has been so conventional as to border on the dull, unlike the catalyst for the story Adrian Finn who is intellectually gifted and a natural philosopher of the human condition. However the friendship falls apart after the friends leave to go to university and Adrian enters into a relationship with Tony's ex-girlfriend. And that would have been that, except that many years later a mysterious letter opens up the past causing Tony to reconsider the actions of his youth.
It's a book about history and how we recall events. Tony has his memories but without evidence or corroboration, how sure can he be? Do the lessons learnt in the History classroom apply to the individual? What starts off in the manner of Alan Bennett's "History Boys" soon turns into a darker mystery as Tony is forced to face up to the actions of his younger self.
It's a joy to read. Thought provoking, beautifully observed with just enough mystery to keep you turning the pages to find out what happened. Books that involve the narrator examining their own actions can get too easily bogged down, but by keeping it brief, this never happens with Barnes. There's insight into the human condition and gentle philosophy without it becoming too introspective. It's very readable literary fiction.
Older readers in particular will relate to Tony's struggle with the modernities of the current day.
It's a terrific little book and is highly recommended.
This is a novel which takes a totally different path to what you expect in the first few pages. A group of lads at school, one of them notably intelligent. Life at uni, getting a girlfriend...As the elderly narrator looks back at his youth, it feels like a Kingsley Amis 'Lucky Jim' kind of storyline.
But events pull us up sharp. Twice. And as narrator Tony looks back, he is forced to confront memories that he had obliterated: 'when you're young- when I was young-you want your emotions to...create and define a new reality. Later I think you want them to do something milder, something more practical: you want them to support your life as it is and has become.'
Intelligent and readable work that makes you stop and contemplate what you've read.
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,
on 26 April 2012
At first I was intrigued and pleased: here was a Booker winner that wasn't written in tortuous, incomprehensible prose. I enjoyed it up to the end, even though the protagonist's meandering thought processes seemed to be there to pad out a novella rather than make up a full novel. But then came the conclusion. Eh? Like the protagonist, I didn't get it, and found myself shrugging, and thinking that, after all, it was a Booker prize winner. More prize winning obscurity. I really couldn't see why the guy was beating himself up about something that happened forty years before, nor why his ex-girl friend bothered to keep responding and stringing him along. A shame, as I did find much of it quite enjoyable.
This novella, the winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize, centres on three rather pretentious friends, Colin, Alex and Tony Webster, the narrator, who are joined by Adrian Finn, a new arrival at their school. Adrian is more intelligent and heads for Cambridge to read Moral Sciences whilst Tony studies History at Bristol. The friends then lose contact with one another.
Webster, introspective and socially hesitant, marries, has a daughter and divorces. In retirement he finds himself thinking back to the time he spent with fellow undergraduate, Veronica, his first girlfriend. In particular, he remembers the weekend visit to her home In Chislehurst and the awkward time that he spent with Veronica, her parents and brother. Later he learns that Veronica married Adrian, who subsequently killed himself. Webster is surprised when he learns, 40 years after last meeting her, that Veronica’s mother has left him a small legacy and Adrian’s diary, but Veronica refuses to pass it on.
Memory pervades this book, fragmentary, shifting and inconclusive [‘When you are young, you think you can predict the likely pains and bleaknesses that age might bring…What you fail to do is look ahead, and then imagining yourself looking back from that future point. Learning new emotions that time brings. Discovering, for example, that as the witnesses to your life diminish, there is less corroboration, and therefore less certainty, as to what you are or have been. Even if you have assiduously kept records - in words, sound, pictures - you may find that you have attended to the wrong kind of record keeping.’]
Gradually Webster reconsiders the period of his life with Veronica and begins to see that there are alternative ways of interpreting what happened, ‘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.’
Barnes buries significant detail within the mundane and imperceptibly builds a psychologically gripping narrative. His language suggests that each word has been weighed carefully before being included and memorable lines abound [‘Some Englishman once said that marriage is a long dull meal with pudding served first.’ ‘Why should we expect age to mellow us? If it isn’t life’s business to reward merit, why should it be life’s business to give us warm, comfortable feelings towards its end? What possible evolutionary purpose could nostalgia serve?’]
Having lost contact with Veronica four decades ago, Webster re-establishes contact through e-mail and, eventually, by meeting her. This only causes him to doubt his recollection of events that he had long hidden through self-protection – it took him some two years to admit her very existence to his wife. Webster’s difficulties in remembering, or interpreting what he remembers, call into question his veracity as a narrator.
In a fragment of the diary that Veronica photocopied and sent to him, Webster reads of Adrian’s musings as he attempts to express human relationships in a mathematical or logical formula. Webster concludes that it reflects his friend’s ‘rational arguing towards his own suicide – the writer was using light in an attempt to reach greater light. Does that make sense?’ This is the very core of the book but I felt that it, and Webster’s response, was also the weakest part of the book.
True, the author caught this reader with a clever twist at the very end of the book [that was signaled by Veronica telling Webster, and the reader, ‘You just don’t get it at all, do you? You never did’] but I was left feeling that Webster was too self-obsessed and indecisive about how much he truly wanted to find out about the lives of Veronica and Adrian. This made it difficult to empathise with Webster’s undoubted psychological distress.
The first part of the book describes the emotional pain and sexual frustration of growing up in the 1960s, but as the narrator explains it was only the Sixties ‘for some people, only in certain parts of the country.’ Not a novel topic but Barnes handles it with great wit and insight.
In summary: a very good book but not a great one.
A masterpiece of story-telling by one of our finest novelists, rich in period atmosphere and revealing some totally unexpected and disturbing twists towards the end. For readers in the same (or slightly earliuer) age category as the narrator Tony, much of the first part will have powerful resonances - the earnest bookishness of Tony and his friends, the constant search for the meaning of life, and relationships with girls that hovered around the boundaries, but (at that stage) did not 'go all the way' - as Tony himself remarks in retrospect, the spirit of the repressed 1950s still lingered, despite the image of the swinging 60s. Brilliantly caught in this narrative is the fraught ritual of the young man staying at the home of his girl friend's parents, with a reciprocal visit following.
Barnes works in the theme of time passing, and of sudden change - not always in expected directions, as conveyed in the important symbol of the Severn Bore reversing the natural flow of water in the Bristol Channel. But the most important agent of change is Tony himself, who is guilty of that common phenomenon, 'the insenstivity of the sensitive'. The consequences of his actions only became apparent in their true awfulness much later: they explode like a bombshell just over half-way through the book. The rest of the story explores the themes of remorse and forgiveness as Tony tries to come to terms with his past. This process inevitably involves memory, the other main theme of the book, and the way the human mind summons up forgotten incidents while erasing others. Tony's attempts to dredge up the past have the added effect of shaking up his rather smug and comfortable existence since graduation, a life which he now dismisses as 'average': in short he has played safe and shied away from any real commitments.
The audiobook is an ideal medium for what is a short novel, providing an evening of compelling listening and presented by an excellent reader. Highly recommended.
on 17 April 2012
Although I admired the writer's craft I found this a rather joyless read. No doubt this was due to the subject matter of two suicides, central to the book, but I found the characters to be lacking in wamth and empathy. Maybe this is the writer's take on the English middle class but there seems little to admire in any of the people described in the book. It is however a compelling read due to the fluency of the prose and the ending was neatly written.
As someone else remarked it seemed a little too celebral, which worked well in Flaubert's Parrot, but in this portrayal of human relationships and the pain of past actions was a little too cold and clinical.
on 16 June 2013
A confusing title for a review perhaps, but chosen as I am often interested to read the Booker winners but find them difficult to grasp or a challenging rather than enjoyable experience. However, I both admired and loved "A Sense of an Ending" from start to finish.
Tony Webster is a retired man who has lived, on the face of it, a fairly conventional life. A particular event causes him to reflect on his younger years and to unravel a story that reaches a dramatic peak in the final pages.
Tony is the narrator and the reader is therefore "in his head" throughout, following his musings on life in a way that I found familiar, as patterns of thought I may have myself. This makes the eventual outcome of the novel the more shocking as it really brings home how actions that may seem flippant and insignificant at the time, can actually have dramatic and far reaching impacts, and how our words, sometimes uttered in times of high emotion, can be easily forgotten or manipulated in our own memories but can have a deep impact on others.
I wasn't quite sure what to make of this at first. It's not perfect: I guessed the final twist a little earlier than I would have liked, and there is some repetitive padding in Tony's internal dialogues.
Several days after finishing it though, I realise that it must indeed a very good book, as it has cast quite a spell over me.
Julian Barnes captures very well what it feels like to be male. Tony's relationship with Veronica is wonderfully entertaining, especially when he finds it so hard to understand her.
The ideas about memory are quite profound, and reflective of recent discoveries in brain science too. The world would be a better place if we were all more willing to admit that our memories frequently deceive us.
I don't normally like Booker prize winners (having had some terrible experiences with them), and only considered reading this because it had been recommended by a friend. If there are other people out there who are skeptical for the same reason, do give this one a try.