The Sense of an Ending
by Julian Barnes
2011 / 165 pages
Another group is reading this Booker winner so I’ll play and reread it.
I give it that high of a rating because it’s well written for a soap-opera with literary themes.. The theme is … ta-da ta-da … memory and time – Barnes’ old hobby horse. I rather enjoyed it in Flaubert’s Parrot, the story in Arthur and George was so good I forgot that Barnes had switched the nationality of Arthur simply to serve his agenda. The Sense of an Ending is more of the same.
We have not only an unreliable narrator – he deals with unreliable characters. That leads us to the fact that, in Barnes’ mind, as pointed out in the opening pages of the book – through page 19 anyway, history is unreliable.
“ ‘History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.’ ” (p. 18) AND again on page 65!
This is STUPID! – what kind of definition of history is that? What do we call it when documentation is fine and memory agrees with it? – Is that something other than “history”?
Okay – fine. And once again the literary/philosopher Frank Kermode’s ideas come up – well … the titles of both the Barnes and the Kermode books are the same. Barnes refers to the tick-tock of time and the watches the boys wear toward the hearts. That’s the basis of the Kermode hypothesis. (pgs. 3 & 6)
The whole point of the Robles suicide story is that nobody really knows why he did it. The story has no bearing on the rest of the book except thematically. That was high school.
On to the story – It seems that Tony Watson – the middle-aged, divorced, 1st person narrator had an affair in college with Veronica, a young woman who was apparently not too tightly wrapped. This was in the 1960s. Tony is invited to Veronica’s house to meet her parents. This is a very strange scene – and he makes sure the reader understand from the outset of the book that he does NOT remember everything that happened.
Veronica, Dad and Brother leave for a walk while Mom chats up Tony in the kitchen. Mom, apparently an experienced cook, warns Tony about Veronica and while she’s frying eggs she – excuse me – breaks an egg yolk. (This is really striking after you know the “ending” but at the moment it might seem like nice detailed writing. The thing about details in the literary fiction is to ask yourself why those specific details.) Back to the visit – it’s a very constipating visit and Tony takes a very healthy dump afterwards. I suppose that means that there’s a lot of stuff which is repressed there. (I don’t think it was the change of food or beds.)
“I was so ill at ease that I spent the entire weekend constipated: this is my principal factual memory. The rest consists of impressions and half memories which may therefore be self-serving:” (p. 30)
Tony and Veronica make up – she continues to be highly manipulative. She has sex with him afterwards and accuses him of raping her. Her mother writes Tony a letter saying he was probably better off without her.
During this time Tony and friends watch a river suddenly surge backwards.
“… the river simply seemed to change its mind, and a wave, two or three feet high, was heading towards us, the water breaking across its whole width, from bank to bank.” (p. 39)
What is that saying about time and expectations? – time going backwards? (I have no idea.)
So then Adrian, one of Tony’s group of buddies, writes to ask permission to marry Veronica. Again, Tony doesn’t trust his own memory so – why should we? Does this disclaimer make him seem more reliable?
Then Adrian commits suicide – the last time Alex (a buddy) saw Adrian he said he was in love. Tony assumes it’s with Veronica but … (p.55)
The friends fade, Tony marries, has a child, divorces, the child grows up, he retires and does volunteer work – including with the historical society.
Now in part 2 Tony (Barnes) goes on about history and time. (ho hum)
One day he gets a letter advising him he has been left some money (not much) and 2 documents in the will of Veronica’s mother, Mrs. Ford. The money will be forthcoming, the first of the “documents” is there – a letter from Mrs. Ford explaining the Adrian’s diary but Veronica still has the diary.
In trying to explain his lack of memory about all this Tony says when he met Margaret, his wife, he pretended that Veronica had not been in his life. Says he went backwards – (like the river?) He destroyed the evidence except for one photo. He tried to go blank on it.
What all goes backwards in this novel?
Later he tells her the truth – why – why does Barnes have Tony tell the truth? To gain the reader’s sympathy for Tony? See he’s not lying – he wouldn’t lie to us. To have the river go forward again – as it did that evening back on page 39?
He tells Margaret about the will and suddenly it seems he’s told her more than he let on before. – Ah well – that’s what the book is about – the impossibility of truth – faulty memories for lots of reasons.
Not terribly convincing about why Tony wants Adrian’s diary.
Margaret warns him that the diary might not be what he wants to read. (And it points out that the ending is not the reason for the story – Kermode again)
“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.” (p. 88)
Having got her address from her brother (via the solicitor) Tony writes to Veronica.
She responds with the words, “Blood money?”
The mystery is never answered – why did Mrs. Lane send Tony the money? There is a bigger twist at the end – but until you get there, the story is mostly all fluff and nonsense – philosophical meandering, generalizations (which I can NOT stand but everyone else seems to underline to the max). And the final twist only raises more questions, so nothing changes.
Okay – one thing I did kind of like was the water metaphor – see above – the river suddenly going backwards. It comes up at least 3 times in the book – possibly 4 or 5.
I’m going to quit summing this up now and just go finish it.