Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 11 July 2015

"The Sense of an Ending" by Julian Barnes (Jonathan Cape, 2011)

Spoiler alert

In part one of this 150 page novel, Antony gives us his life-story - divorced, retired, with a daughter and grandchildren who are barely mentioned. He's still friendly with his ex-wife. He recalls attending history lessons -

  • "History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation" - Patrick Lagrange
  • "History is the lies of the victors"
  • "it is also the self-delusions of the defeated"

There's also a theory that the psychological make-up of a historian affects their perspective on history. A fellow pupil, Robson hanged himself - his girlfriend was pregnant. Adrian was Anthony's cleverest friend. At university, Antony had a long-term but not very physical relationship with Veronica. Later Veronica and Adrian got together. Adrian killed himself. We learn very little about Antony's married years. Throughout this narrative, Antony's reflective, and prone to delivering the wisdom that comes with age -

  • "I certainly believe we all suffer damage ... then there is the question, on which so much depends, of how we react to the damage: whether we admit it or repress it, and how this affects our dealings with others. Some admit the damage, and try to mitigate it; some spend their lives trying to help others who are damaged; and then there are those whose main concern is to avoid further damage to themselves, at whatever cost", p.44
  • "What you fail to do is look ahead, and then imagine yourself looking back from that future point ... 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", p.59

Part 2 (50% longer than the first part) begins with a letter from Veronica's mother's executor. She left him 500 pounds and Adrian's diary. Why? They only met once. But Veronica has taken the diary. This surprise from the past provokes more memory-searching. He tries to recover the diary, hoping this might help him understand himself and others better, but makes do with meeting Veronica, who he begins to take a fancy to. He re-evaluates his lifetime association with women - "I don't want you to be a woman of mystery. I think I'd hate it. Either it's just a facade, a game, a technique for ensnaring men, or else the woman of mystery is a mystery even to herself, and that's the worst of all" (p.66). When they meet she's difficult ("You don't get it. You never did," she keeps telling him), showing him a little group of mentally challenged people, giving no explanation. But she does give him a copy of the letter that he'd send her and Adrian soon after they'd informed him of their relationship. He's surprised by it. It contains phrases like "it's just a question of whether you can get pregnant before he discovers you're a bore" (p.97). Antony realises that the letter's "A libel on [Adrian's] character and an attempt to destroy the first and last love affair of his life" (p.98). He apologises to Veronica and tries to understand why he was so vicious.

  • "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.80
  • "Does character develop over time? In novels, of course it does ... But in life? Our attitudes and opinions change, we develop new habits and eccentricities; but that's something different, more like decoration", p.103
  • "You put money on a horse, it wins, and your winnings go on to the next horse in the next race, and so on. Your winnings accumulate. But do your losses? Not at the racetrack - there you just lose your original stake. But in life?", p.103
  • "It's a bit like the black box aeroplanes carry to record what happens in a crash. If nothing goes wrong, the tape erases itself. So if you do crash, it's obvious why you did; if you don't, then the log of your journey is much less clear", p.105

There are hints to make the reader think that Veronica could have become pregnant thanks to a number of the male characters, including Anthony. Finally, enough is revealed to make sense of the facts. More than once, a comparison between life and novels is made. The revelations tie up the loose ends of the persona's life. Whether they provide the novel with anything more than a necessary "sense of an ending" is moot, but maybe that's the point - in life as in novels there are things that one's supposed to do at the end, just to keep other people happy.

I'm a sucker for the style (especially of the quotes above), though I'm surprised it was on the Man Booker shortlist. Self re-interpretation is a common literary theme, as is using history theory and the idea of the interpreter not being as wise as he seems. That said, it's short (aka compact), a good read, and the characters are all well drawn.

Other reviews

  • Anita Brookner (Telegraph) (facts throw into relief his inability to reconstruct his relations with either Adrian or Veronica. ... It would be a mistake to dismiss this as a mere psychological thriller. It is in fact a tragedy, like Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, which it resembles. ... Do not be misled by its brevity. Its mystery is as deeply embedded as the most archaic of memories.)
  • Andrew Blackman
  • Andrew Blackman (Tony feels guilty because his spiteful letter drove Adrian to Veronica’s mother, which led them to produce a son, which led to his suicide. The suggestion, then, is that Adrian’s suicide wasn’t an intellectual/philosophical decision after all, but a banal one on the same level as Robson’s suicide in their school days. ... To me, Veronica’s obstructive behaviour throughout the novel was not very credible. It seemed to function as a plot device: the author needed to ration information out, to dripfeed it to the reader to maintain suspense, so if Veronica had explained everything immediately, there would have been no book. But her reasons for withholding all this information are not clear.)
  • Peter Clothier (Huffington Post) ( I was wearied by his obsessive self-analysis--and his faulty analysis of others. I was turned off by his sexual passivity, and his passive aggressive relationship with the former girlfriend ... I was not much engaged, as others apparently were (the book was a NYT best seller) by the philosophical ramblings about time and the fragmentary nature of memory. I found little that was actually new and original)
  • Tales from the Reading Room (the story signals to us loud and clear that Tony is an unreliable narrator. ... But Tony does go through a sort of rite of passage, in which he realises that people’s emotional lives are far more complicated than he wanted to think. He is forced to recognise his callousness and lack of emotional literacy across his life; he knows he’s avoided as much real feeling as he possibly could in the name of self-protection. And he is obliged to accept the inconvenient truth that his baser actions, which he would like to forget and cover up, did have consequences. But Tony’s problem has always been that he interprets through his emotions)
  • Liesl Schillinger (New York Times) (In Margaret, he sought a mature, “peaceable” life. Decades later, he sees the fraudulence in that discretion. “We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imagined we were being responsible but were only being cowardly. What we called realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things rather than facing them.” But who does Tony enfold into his “we”? His agonized analysis is entirely self-­referential, as solitary and armored as the man himself.)
  • Geoff Dyer (New York Times) (It isn’t terrible, it is just so ... average.)
  • Justin Jordan (Guardian) (the act of revisiting his past in later life challenges his core beliefs about causation, responsibility and the very chain of events that make up his sense of self ... Like so many of Barnes's narrators, Tony Webster is resigned to his ordinariness; even satisfied with it)

1 comment:

  1. Dear Tim

    I read this book several years ago and can't remember much about it. Like you, I'm a sucker for his style and think that he must be one of the best English prose writers around. There was a good quote about death on Radio 4 last night: 'Never was a man so much mourned and so little missed.'

    Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish