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Unhappy endings.

September 19, 2011
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, $29.95, Jonathan Cape

Julian Barnes’s recent work reveals a preoccupation with endings: 2008’s non-fiction Nothing to be Frightened of was a meditation on death, and 2005’s short story collection The Lemon Table portrayed characters facing the end of their lives. In his latest novel, The Sense of An Ending—recently shortlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize—Barnes explores the mutable nature of memory and ageing, and how unwittingly we wrap our pasts in self-made fictions that shield us from darker truths.

“They say time finds you out, don’t they?” observes Tony Webster, the comfortably ordinary protagonist of Barnes’s novel. Retired and amicably divorced, Tony believes that he has lived a good, if unremarkable, life; but when an unexpected letter prompts him to revisit events from his school and university days, time slowly reveals its long-hidden secrets.

As teenagers in the 1960s, Tony and his two best friends Colin and Alex possess the familiar affectations of youth: they argue about politics, use phrases such as “philosophically self-evident,” and pretend to know about sex. In their final year of school, they are suitably awed by newcomer Adrian, whose quiet intellectual brilliance leaves them wondering “if he was engaged in subtle mockery or a high seriousness beyond the rest of us”. Unsurprisingly, Adrian wins a place at Cambridge; the other three go their separate ways and begin to slowly drift apart.

At university, Tony gets his first girlfriend, the prickly Veronica, who has “an occasional flickering smile and a more frequent frown”. After spending an uncomfortable weekend together at Veronica’s family home, their relationship disintegrates, but not before Tony has introduced Veronica to Adrian. After the break-up, Veronica and Adrian become an item.

Tony moves on, loses touch with his friends, and lives a pleasantly conventional and predictable life: marriage, child, divorce, retirement. In Tony’s mind, his past is fixed and settled, a series of rather unexceptional happenings that cushions his quiet and agreeable present.

Things change with the arrival of a lawyer’s letter, which reveals the bewildering news that Tony has been left Adrian’s diary in a will. In a curious twist, Veronica has the diary; for reasons bafflingly unclear to Tony, she refuses to relinquish it.

As Tony attempts to make sense of this by reconnecting with Veronica and revisiting his memories of their brief time together, those memories begin to shift and slide; “for years you survive with the same loops, the same facts and the same emotions,” he theorises, “but what if, even at a late stage, your emotions relating to those long-ago events and people change?”

It’s a question that cuts to the core of his predicament, and to the secret at the heart of the novel. When that secret is finally revealed, it is tragic, unexpected, and beautifully apposite.

Tony is a thoughtful narrator, at once trustworthy and unreliable: while he makes every attempt to represent the truth of his past, he undermines the accuracy of his story at every turn of its telling, constantly qualifying his recollections by reminding us that this is only how he remembers them: he gives us his “best version” of events. Seeing Veronica again for the first time in decades, he tells her “the story of my life. The version I tell myself, the account that stands up”.

Barnes is, as ever, a fine wordsmith, and at just 150 pages, The Sense of An Ending is a tight and elegantly structured piece of work. Tony’s threads his story with pensive impressions about the nature of time and memory, and how readily and unknowingly we deploy them to deceive ourselves.

Tony’s situation is perhaps so compelling because of its discomfiting familiarity: that sense of wanting to present yourself, and your past, in ways that you can live with. “When you’re young,” he reflects, “you want your emotions to be like the ones you read about in books. You want them to overturn your life, 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”.

And this is, perhaps, too easy; when we are exposed, when time “finds us out,” the truth can be as uncomfortable as it is impossible to undo. As Tony comes to realise, “history isn’t the lies of the victors. It’s more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated”.

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