The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes

In Julian Barnes’ novel, The Sense of an Ending (Penguin Random House, 2011), we meet a narrator in the long tradition of the sad-sack loser telling his story. Anthony (Tony) Webster, resident of London, now in his sixties, looks back on his life from present time. The novel begins as Tony recalls his days as a student, a time when his life appeared to have a good deal of promise. We meet him as a teenage schoolboy in a public boys school—“public” being the British for “private”—pondering, along with his best friends Alex and Colin, certain grand philosophical issues, such as What is history?

These boys, it would seem, are budding intellectuals, and when a new boy, Adrian, appears at the school and becomes their friend, he expands the boundaries of their intellectual pursuits. Topics raised in class are “Birth, Copulation and Death,” then “Eros and Thanatos.” Good title for this book: Birth, Copulation, Etc.

And then something happens. As Adrian postulates, when asked to describe the rule of Henry the Eighth, “there is one line of thought according to which all you can say of any historical event—even the outbreak of the First World War, for example—is that ‘something happened.’” Here we have another possible title for the book, Something Happened (although this one has already been taken by Joseph Heller).

What happens to the characters of the book is life, which has its ways of deflating human dreams and the scintillating promise of a future. We never learn much about what Alex and Colin make of their lives, inasmuch as the action of the novel is centered on Tony and Adrian. Tony’s life is of such inconsequence, however, so dull and commonplace that the author (through Tony) gives us the birth-copulation part in only three pages in the middle of the book.

Tony met an ordinary woman named Margaret. They married, had a child, Susan. Margaret took up with another man and they divorced. Susan grew up (“They grow up so quickly, don’t they?”), married, had children of her own. At the present time of action Tony lives alone, retired, claims to be content (“I was used to my own routines, and fond of my solitude”).

So here we have Mr. Average, Anthony Webster, a man who “had wanted life not to bother me too much,” doing his best to live a life of “peaceableness,” fending off destiny’s attempts to roil with the peace by lying low. Here is how Part Two begins: “Later on in life, you expect a bit of rest, don’t you? You think you deserve it. I did anyway. But then you begin to understand that the reward of merit is not life’s business.” The “bit of rest” line is a brief nod to Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, a novel with a similar sad sack of a narrator.

At this point it appears that there is nothing awaiting dull, quotidian Tony Webster, other than the third of three entities in the pattern: birth, copulation, death. But this is not a book about dying. It is a book about remembering. The main theme involves how we remember and misremember important things in our lives, how we write the story of our lives that we prefer, how, in the process of this writing, we let our memory distort certain facts in order to make the story more palatable—to others, and, more importantly, to our own selves.

We are all storytellers, of course. Maybe not in England, but at least in the American South, the term can be pejorative: “You’re a storyteller (liar); I don’t believe a thing you say.” Over and over passages throughout the novel reinforce this theme. Everything is nebulous. “Our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but mainly—to ourselves.” Very early on the narrator mentions “some primitive storytelling instinct . . . . which retrospectively imposed meaning on what might or might not have happened.” Memory, “a thing of shreds and patches,” is a storyteller as well.

Tony cautions the reader repeatedly that he cannot be sure of exactly what happened. “Again, I must stress that this is my reading now of what happened then. Or, rather, my memory now of my reading then of what was happening at the time.” What does literary critic Frank Kermode have to say about the unreliable narrator, in his book titled The Sense of an Ending?

Looking back on his past from a time approaching old age, Tony concerns himself primarily with an early love affair, his first love Veronica. The affair looms large for him, perhaps because he has had so few women in his life. At the beginning of the book Tony summarizes important images still in his memory, episodes in which Veronica was involved. Here’s how the book begins on page one.

“I remember, in no particular order:
–a shiny inner wrist [see p. 145; this is a recollection of an act of masturbation, which took place the one time that Tony visited Veronica’s family]
–steam rising from a wet sink as a hot frying pan is laughingly tossed into it [see p. 31; this is Veronica’s mother preparing eggs for him during that same visit]
–gouts of sperm circling a plughole, before being sluiced down the full length of a tall house [see p. 123; this alludes to that same act of masturbation]
–a river rushing nonsensically upstream, its wave and wash lit by half a dozen chasing torchbeams [see p. 38-39; 130; this is Tony’s visit to the Severn Bore, either with or without Veronica (his memory contradicts itself on that issue); more on the Severn Bore later]
–another river, broad and grey, the direction of its flow disguised by a stiff wind exciting its surface [see p. 99; this is the River Thames, beside which Tony and Veronica sit on a bench, at their first meeting in forty years]
–bathwater long gone cold behind a locked door [see p. 53; this alludes to probably the most important event in the whole book, Adrian’s death by suicide]
This last isn’t something I actually saw, but what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed (there you have on page one a statement of the major theme of the book).”

At first Tony’s preoccupation with a love from forty years back seems puzzling. After all, he never really had much going with Veronica. At least in his recollections, she always treated him with condescension, withheld sex, strung him along while looking for someone more to her liking. They never appear to have been on the same wavelength. Even when he makes witty remarks her reaction is muted. Failing to recall her brother Jack, Tony asks,

“[who] Jack?”
“My brother—you remember?”
“Let me see . . . Was he the one who was younger than your father?”
I thought that wasn’t bad, but she didn’t even smile.”

At another point, apparently trying to “clarify the relationship,” young Veronica gets nowhere and tells him, “You’re quite cowardly, aren’t you, Tony?” He replies [even then already a sad sack], “I think it’s more that I’m . . . peaceable.”

So they break up, and soon after that Veronica meets him by chance at a pub. They go back to her room, where she seduces him. This is their one and only act of sexual intercourse. At the moment their “love” is consummated, he decides that he wants nothing more to do with her. He resents the way she has held out on him, then has given him sex, apparently in an attempt to get him back. But then, despite the total breakup, he never entirely dismisses her from his mind. Why?

The answer lies in probably the most important hook-up in the book. Veronica soon gets together with Adrian, whom Tony looks up to as a genuine intellectual and considers his best friend. Although no latent homosexuality on Tony’s part is implied in the narrative, it seems clear that Adrian means more to Tony than Veronica does. He reacts to what he sees as a hideous betrayal with the rage of a lover scorned (although we learn the amplitude of that rage only in the second half of the book).

Then, while Tony, after having completed his university studies, is hitchhiking blithefully about the U.S., comes the novel’s most decisive event: Adrian, at age twenty-two, cuts his wrists in the bath. Who is responsible for the suicide? Well, everyone, and no one. As the philosopher schoolboy Adrian himself once remarked—apropos of who was responsible for the start of World War I—

“Indeed, isn’t the whole business of ascribing responsibility a kind of cop-out? We want to blame an individual so that everyone else is exculpated. Or we blame a historical process as a way of exonerating individuals. Or it’s all anarchic chaos . . . . But of course, my desire to ascribe responsibility might be more a reflection of my own cast of mind than a fair analysis of what happened.”

For the rest of the book we have Tony’s trying to come to terms with this act, and never totally succeeding. For the rest of the book we seek “a fair analysis of what happened,” but we never really get that either. The issue of suicide is raised early on, when Robson, a rather undistinguished fellow pupil at the school, hangs himself, apparently after having got a girl pregnant.

In discussing Robson’s death, the philosopher schoolboys are rather flippant. Adrian remarks that in the eternal struggle of Eros and Thanatos “Thanatos wins again.” Then they consider the pregnant girlfriend, and, once again, we have the theme of storytelling. The boys have no idea of what this girl is like, so they make up variants on her: “We considered the options known to us: prim virgin (now ex-virgin), tarty shopgirl, experienced older woman, VD-riddled whore.”

Then Adrian gets into the philosophy of suicide:

“Camus said that suicide was the only true philosophical question.” As we learn later on, the issue involves the way life is given unbidden to an individual, and, consequently, the way any individual can, ostensibly, opt to reject that unbidden gift. Of course, none of this applies, say the boys, to poor dumb Robson, whose action “had been unphilosophical, self-indulgent and inartistic: in other words, wrong.”

Later on, in history class, Adrian brings up the suicide of Robson again, and in so doing he states another major theme of the whole book: we can never really know exactly what happened, in the lives of others, or even in our own past lives.

“Does that [suicide] note still exist? Was it destroyed? Did Robson have any other motives or reasons beyond the obvious ones? What was his state of mind? Can we be sure the child was his? We can’t know, sir, not even this soon afterwards. So how might anyone write Robson’s story in fifty years’ time, when his parents are dead and his girlfriend has disappeared and doesn’t want to remember him anyway?”

In this persistently self-referential book, however, it later becomes obvious that the young Adrian is— unbeknownst to himself—discussing in advance issues that pertain to his own suicide at age twenty-two. Five or six years after Robson’s death, when Tony and his old friend Alex meet to discuss that suicide of their friend, their immediate assumption is that he was no Robson. His was an act of grace, of glorious free will, demonstrating “the superiority of the intervening act over the unworthy passivity of merely letting life happen to you.” In other words, brilliant Adrian returns unopened the gift he has never asked for, unlike sad sack Tony, who opens the gift but never does much at all with it, goes on incessantly letting life happen to him.

But at that same meeting Tony plants the seed for an issue that will burgeon and blossom later in the novel. “What I can’t work out is if it’s something complete in itself—I don’t mean self-regarding but, you know, just involving Adrian—or something that contains an implicit criticism of everyone else. Of us.” Already some neuron deep in his brain is aware that Tony himself is more complicit in that suicide than his storytelling consciousness is willing to admit.

This sets us up for the intrigue of the second half of the book, and the author certainly provides us with a plethora of intrigue—perhaps, as the British say, too much intrigue by half.

As the saying goes, we all eventually become our parents. As schoolboys Tony and his friends fear that their lives will turn out not to be “Literature,” that they will end up in the same dull, gray world in which their parents dwell. In his sixties at the present time of the novel, Tony in fact HAS ended up in that same quotidian world. His life has not one iota of Literature about it, at least so it appears at the beginning of the second half of the book.

Then we get the intrigue involving the death of Veronica’s mother, her leaving five hundred pounds in her will to Tony—whom she met only once in her life—along with a letter and Adrian’s diary. After this Veronica comes back into his life, in a manner of speaking, and forty years after Adrian’s death he wrangles with her over the diary (which she has appropriated), chases after her, half back in love with her it seems. So that, in the second part of this short book the author puts his narrator Tony into something that appears to be Real Literature.

Except that it gradually becomes apparent that sad-sack Tony has ended up in a kind of skewed cheap mystery novel. Especially in the latter pages of the book mundane Tony—-after what started out as his quest for the diary and the truth about Adrian-—is enveloped in silly and inconsequential action that is, largely, melodramatic.

He’s too unprepossessing to ever be a character in Literature, but he is the perfect literary personage for trite Melodrama. The use of melodrama in plot, and the way the narrator is enmeshed in the melodrama, once again reminds us of Ford’s The Good Soldier.

Tony pretends incessantly to be satisfied with himself and his life; he fights to maintain in his own mind the self-narrative that protects him. Late in his life he seems primarily preoccupied with proving to Veronica and others (but primarily to himself) that “I wasn’t a bad guy.” Pretending is his favorite mode of being. See, e.g., his too-often-repeated insistence that he and his daughter Susie get along well. Susie largely ignores her father, preferring to live her life without him. She practically never even lets him be with his grandchildren, although she says, “You can take Lucas to watch football when he’s older.”

His reaction to her suggestion is not expressed directly, but the bitterness spills over into a querulous description of what modern-day football is like.

“Ah, the rheumy-eyed grandpa on the terraces inducting the lad into the mysteries of soccer: how to loathe people wearing different coloured shirts, how to feign injury, how to blow your snot onto the pitch . . . how to be vain and overpaid and have your best years behind you before you’ve even understood what life’s about.”

This paragraph purports to be saying something about soccer, but is really saying how angry Tony is with his “loving” daughter, and the last line, about having your best years behind you is subconscious description of self.

Shortly before that comes what must be the climax of the whole book, when Veronica sends him back a poison-pen letter that he wrote forty years ago. Always intent on presenting himself to others and his own self as a mild-mannered and basically well-meaning man, Tony is forced to look in the letter at a different side of himself. Here are excerpts from that letter.

“Dear Adrian—or rather, Dear Adrian and Veronica (hello, Bitch, and welcome to this letter),
Well you certainly deserve one another and I wish you much joy. I hope you get so involved that the mutual damage will be permanent. I hope you regret the day I introduced you. And I hope that when you break up, as you inevitably will . . . . . that you are left with a lifetime of bitterness that will poison your subsequent relationships. Part of me hopes you’ll have a child, because I’m a great believer in time’s revenge, yea unto the next generation . . . .
Even her own mother warned me against her. If I were you, I’d check things out with Mum . . . .”

The letter ends as follows, “Compliments of the season to you, and may the acid rain fall on your joint and anointed heads.”

There are several big revelations near the end of the book. For one thing, Adrian’s grand philosophical gesture of returning the unwanted gift of life is called into question. His suicide may have actually resembled that of poor gormless Robson. Caught in a bad situation Adrian possibly “took the easy way out.” That situation involves a retarded child named Adrian, along with Veronica’s mother and her relationship to that child.

Veronica as old woman could have cleared up a lot of the mystery for the narrator and the reader, but she is portrayed as stubbornly obtuse and opaque, muttering a few confusing phrases by e-mail and in person, and—for some reason hard to fathom—leading Tony and the reader around by the nose, pointing out things that are obvious to her, trying to force dull Tony into finally “getting it.”

As reviewer I suppose I should not reveal all of the intricate twists of plot at the end, for fear of spoiling the mystery novel for prospective readers. Suffice it to say that Tony’s poison pen letter ends up being something like a curse placed upon the heads of Veronica and Adrian. “When I reread my words [in the letter] they seemed like some ancient curse I had forgotten even uttering.” In other words, many of the events that he had maliciously wished upon the two in his letter actually come to pass, and forty years later Tony finds himself complicit in the ruining of several lives.

How much of this is believable is another issue, and I found myself at the end wishing that maybe not quite so many fantastical plot lines had made it into the story. There is, for example, as part of Adrian’s diary—on the one page Veronica allows Tony to see—a mathematical formula involving the integers b, a1, a2, s, and v. On the next to last page of the book Tony somehow deduces that these letters refer to himself and the other characters, miraculously comprehends the formula.

As melodrama, however, I suppose that all of this stuff works. Furthermore, given that the novel is so well composed, I suppose that these melodramatic effects were what the author was working toward all along.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book with so many good suggestions for its title in the text of the narrative. The Sense of an Ending is teeming with good titles, some of them possibly better than The Sense of an Ending.

Here are some of them: Philosophically Self-Evident (a phrase used repeatedly, ironically, throughout the book); Time Is (Not) on My Side (a line from a Rolling Stones song also used repeatedly, but without the word “not”); Every Day Is Sunday; Chicken in Half Mourning (a great description of Tony); and two suggested epitaphs for the narrator: On His Own Now and He Never Got It.

Maybe the best title of all for this book would be The Severn Bore, which alludes to a major image in the book as well as to its main character’s boring, dull personality. Twice in the novel and again on the very last page Tony describes a visit to the Severn River, to watch the phenomenon of the bore: the backward wave moving upstream, caused by the high tide at the mouth of the river. You wonder what this has to do with the action of the novel, but the author helpfully inserts several passages elsewhere in the book relative to backward flows.

“I was saying, confidently, how the chief characteristic of remorse is that nothing can be done about it: that the time has passed for apology or amends. But what if I’m wrong? What if by some means remorse can be made to flow backward, can be transmuted into simple guilt, then apologized for, and then forgiven?”

“And this personal time, which is the true time, is measured in your relationship to memory. So when this strange thing happened—when these new memories suddenly came upon me—it was as if, for that moment, time had been placed in reverse. As if, for that moment, the river ran upstream.”

“What had begun as a determination to obtain property bequeathed to me [the diary] had morphed into something much larger, something which bore on the whole of my life, on time and memory. And desire. I thought—at some level of my being I actually thought—that I could go back to the beginning and change things. That I could make the blood flow backwards. I had the vanity to imagine—even if I didn’t put it more strongly than this—that I could make Veronica like me again, and that it was important to do so.”

Of course, life never can be made to operate backwards or inside out, like that backwards cresting wave on the Severn River. Neither can remorse be made to flow backwards, and viciously spilled blood flows only in one direction. At the end of the book Tony bears a crushing weight of responsibility, and feels unrest, great unrest. Yes, the best title for this novel is The Severn Bore.

-U.R. Bowie, author of Gogol’s Head: The Misadventures of a Purloined Skull, 2017

One thought on “The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes

  1. A Terrific work of deconstruction of nostalgia. Often we hear glorification of nostalgia. Julian Barnes easily pulls it down from the pedestal and mocks the vulnerability of the memory. Memory is after all a creation of a human being. And it will always remain like that.

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