I had planned to wait a while before reading The Sense of an Ending, but Stella Rimington’s appearance at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in a discussion entitled ‘But is it a Good Read?’ (see my muse on that session) prompted me to see if it was indeed just that. Rimington, ex-head of MI5 and now a thriller author in her own right, was chair of the Booker panel of judges in 2011, the year Sense won. She caused a stir with her comments that the shortlist should focus on books that rated well for their ‘readability’. Well, didn’t that send the so-called ‘literati’ into a tizz! Commentators suggested this represented an assault on the Booker Prize, or even on literature itself; Jeanette Winterson wrote a particularly scathing piece in The Guardian. At the time I was a bit concerned myself. Rimington suggested in the SWF session that she had chosen the wrong word, that ‘accessible’ was perhaps better. If it is, it’s only slightly better. If we chose the Miles Franklin Award based on accessible, then books like Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria and Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance – both important books – would not have won. Maybe Rimington et al herded themselves into a corner with their shortlist, making the winner a somewhat obvious choice, but whatever their faults, The Sense of an Ending is a fine novella – readable and accessible, yes, but also ‘literary’. It might not wow Winterson, who admires literature that challenges and extends her ‘capacity to think and feel’, but it probably wouldn’t have have upset her terribly, either.
When Tony Webster introduces himself as our first person narrator, he lists six things he remembers, then informs us: “… what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.” We know we have an unreliable narrator. The six things are all in a sense liquid, be it a sweaty wrist, steam rising from a wet sink, a river, “bathwater long gone cold behind a locked door”, and so on. These images are a conscious choice by Barnes, used to reflect the fluid nature that his memories now possess as he looks back on his life in old age. They also hold other clues, a sense of wonder at a river that runs uphill, a sense of change in the steam, a sense of foreboding in what lies behind the locked door. So we have details that work twice as hard, serving to reflect the thematic tilt of the story to come as well as set up that story.
Tony is thinking back to his youth. At boarding school, his circle of three friends becomes four when the strikingly original thinker, Adrian, joins the class. There are some interesting events in this section, such as the discussion in history class about what history is and how it relies on interpretation. Adrian stuns Tony and the rest of the class, including their teacher, with his assessment, which he ends thus:
That’s one of the central problems of history, isn’t it, sir? The question of subjective versus objective interpretation, the fact we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us.
Adrian is not just instructing his classmates and teacher, he’s instructing the reader as well. We’re forced to wonder, what is this history that we are going to read? How subjective will it be? And who is responsible for it?
Other questions are raised in this section as well, such as the boys’ thoughts on the suicide of a fellow classmate, an act they concluded was “unphilosophical, self-indulgent, and inartistic: in other words, wrong.”
Adrian raises the suicide in class, much to the horror of his classmates. He concludes that “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”
After school, the boys go their separate ways. Shy Tony says that he has an instinct for self-preservation. He is atrocious with girls, so it is some surprise to him when he finds himself in a relationship with Veronica. They aren’t right for each other but Tony is so woefully pathetic he can’t see or do anything about it. He just goes with the flow of things. One day the boys re-unite and Tony takes Veronica. She is charmed by Adrian. Sometime after Tony and Veronica’s relationship crumbles, she and Adrian get together and write Tony a letter announcing said fact. Tony first writes a postcard saying all is fine; then he writes a letter. This letter is just the sort of documentation discussed in their history class. Tony recalls his version of it – his no-doubt ‘imperfect memory’ of it. We wonder what the real version was.
Now an old man, he receives a letter from a lawyer announcing that Veronica’s mother has left him five hundred pounds in her will as well as Adrian’s diary. Only Veronica won’t hand the diary over. It’s all very strange. Why did she leave the money to Tony? Why did she have Adrian’s diary? Tony wants the diary because it is a form of documentation, something that might illuminate his memory of events that happened so long ago. Suddenly we find ourselves dealing not with the boring, straight-laced man we thought we were, but someone infinitely more complex.
There are countless wonderful set-ups and pay-offs throughout. As could be expected in a book of just 150 pages, every detail works hard to earn its place, even the particular flat-handed, horizontal wave that Tony receives from Veronica’s mother as he departs after a weekend is placed very specifically.
There are moments of delicious humour too. When Tony visits Veronica’s parents’ house for the weekend, he takes the only suitcase he owns. It’s huge, and he wonders whether they will think he has come to burglarise their home. We’ve all been through those moments were we ‘meet the parents’ and stay over for a night or two. It’s never-wracking and strange and Tony is in a dither about everything that happens, about comments made by her brother, about winks shared between family members, about why Veronica doesn’t kiss him goodnight, and about the mysterious breakfast he shares with Veronica’s mother. And when their relationship ends, he takes a milk jug she’d given him to Oxfam in the hope she would walk past the shop and see it, but when he arrives he finds something she had given him in the window already!
Barnes captures the nuances of ageing with quiet sensitivity. There’s an intimacy with it that is powerfully affecting. Tony slowly pieces together the secrets. Light is shed on those fluid memories we met at the open. Life is made of moments, moments in which decisions are made that alter not just our own life, but the lives of those close to us as well. This is something that Mantel made note of at the Sydney Writers’ Festival on Sunday, something she wants to capture, those moments in which history could have gone one of many different ways; she does so through a cinematic-like present tense; Barnes does so through the fog of fluid memory. For Tony, the repercussions of his actions have rippled out in devastating waves of unexpected consequence, forcing him to reconsider everything.
Perfectly formed, weighted, and considered. That is Julian Barnes’ masterful The Sense of an Ending. It is a damn good read.
Sue, over at Whispering Gums liked it a lot, too.
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
Source: the bookshelf rainbow