• Thursday, May 26th, 2016

Julian Barnes was born in Leicester, England in 1946 from parents both of whom were French teachers. A few weeks after his birth his family moved to the outer suburbs of London. He went to the City of London School from 1957 to 1964 followed by four years at Magdalen College, Oxford where he studied modern languages and graduated with honours in 1968.

He then worked for three years as a lexicographer for the Oxford English Dictionary supplement, followed by a career as a journalist, a reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement. In 1977 Barnes worked as a reviewer and literary editor for the New Statesman and the New Review and from 1979 to 1986 he was an assistant literary editor and television critic for the New Statesman magazine followed by the Observer newspaper. He was London correspondent for the New Yorker magazine from 1990 to 1995.

Julian Barnes currently lives in London and has written several novels, short stories and essays. In the nineteen eighties he also wrote crime fiction novels under the pseudonym Dan Kavanagh. Kavanagh being the surname of his late, literary agent’s wife, Patricia Kavanagh. Julian Barnes has received numerous notable awards, prizes and honours for his work which have been translated into several languages. The Sense Of An Ending is Barnes’ fourteenth novel and it won the Man Booker Prize For Fiction in 2011.

Tony Webster, the narrator in The Sense Of An Ending, has a weak, passive character. He is a retired Englishman in his sixties who lives alone in a London suburb. He goes from a dull, uneventful, quiet life, to a dull married life, a daughter, followed by an uneventful divorce. He once said: “I had wanted life not to bother me too much and succeeded”. He “neither won nor lost, but just let life happen to him… avoided being hurt and called it a capacity for survival”.

The Sense Of An Ending is divided into two parts. In the first, Tony is reminiscing about his college and university years. The second part starts with the arrival of an unexpected letter from a lawyer carrying a strange, baffling will with a bequest of £500 as well as the diary of his departed bright, close school friend that he always looked up to – Adrian Finn. This was all from the estate of Mrs Sarah Ford, the recently deceased mother of his former manipulative and whimsical college girlfriend, Veronica Ford.

Tony has only once met Mrs Sarah Ford, forty years ago when Veronica invited him to spend the weekend at her family’s house in Kent, which ended up being an unpleasant experience. After her mother’s death,Veronica took Adrian Finn’s diary and refused to give it to Tony. Tony is intrigued by the whole affair which pushes him to put all his effort into an attempt to unfold the mystery of this bizarre bequest and the enigma behind Adrian’s suicide.

The matter requires Tony’s eager, intensive investigation. For the first time he will try to make sense of a life he constantly kept afar and to understand why he “still doesn’t get it and never did” as Veronica keeps repeating to him.

After forty years, hidden memories from the distant nineteen sixties resurface. Tony now has time to reflect upon his high school days, his close cliques of school friends – Alexander, Colin and Adrian – and what has become of them after their graduation and after each one went his separate way. The author warns us in the first page of his novel that: “what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed”, because time has the power to deform memories, falsely, into certainties. People prefer to conveniently modify the past to be able to live comfortably with themselves and in order to accommodate the requirements of the current time.

After Tony’s great perseverance, the mystery he was seeking is unravelled with an unexpected twist and will lead to an overwhelming, heartbreaking truth to justify why the ending make sense. A very subtle master stroke by the author.

Throughout the novel, Julian Barnes is sparing with his information – he presents it with many options, varies the angles without disclosing anything, keeping the suspense and the ambiguity in order to reveal an unexpected denouement which clarifies everything at the end.

The Sense Of An Ending is skilfully written and plotted, some parts are tinged with dry English sense of humour. It is the story of a man rediscovering himself while coming to terms with his past “deformed” memories and making sense of perplexing matters. Although a short novel, it is alluring in a philosophical as well as psychological way and a thought-provoker.

A sombre, disturbing insight on ageing and its weaknesses. The novel is dense with reflections and contains several themes like ageing, the passing of time and its effects, the fickleness of memory, the reshaping of the past, remorse, regrets over missed opportunities and how life can guide a person to a different path from the expected one.

In his young days, Tony and his friends “imagined themselves as being kept in some kind of holding pen, waiting to be released into their lives”. Tony Webster will never attain the expected life he wished to have in his adulthood – a life of “passion and danger, ecstasy and despair”. Instead he will come to the conclusion that life has many responsibilities, but most of all is full of considerable “unrest…great unrest”. As the French proverb goes: “Si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait”,“If the young only knew and the old only could”.

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Category: Book Reviews
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  1. 1
    Sunanda Krishnamurty 

    The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes is a compelling book, I was gripped from the first page. It is a profound book that delves into human psychology and emotions, examines memory, and contemplates on aging and regret, and the reliability of history.

    The narrator is Anthony (Tony) Webster. The book begins with a list of events that he remembers, and then he says, “…..what you end up remembering isn’t the same as what you have witnessed. Time itself is malleable, “some emotions speed it up, others slow it down; occasionally it seems to go missing…” (p.1)

    It all began when a new boy, Adrian Finn joined in their school in the sixth form. Colin, and Tony were buddies, and Adrian was drawn into the group. Adrian was an intellectual. Thoughtful, serious, and highly intelligent, his views were taken seriously by both students and teachers.

    After finishing school, they joined different universities. Adrian won a scholarship to Cambridge, and Tony to Bristol. The four of them promised to remain friends, corresponded, but met rarely. After several failed attempts, Tony found a girlfriend, Veronica. He took her to meet his three friends and took a photo of her with them. She was manipulative, and somewhat contemptuous towards Tony, but took him to meet her family. It was an unhappy weekend. Veronica’s father and brother made him feel inadequate and not up to their standard. Here we get a glimpse of the English class system at play. Her mother was sympathetic and warned him to not indulge Veronica.

    The relationship was flawed. Tony was frustrated with Veronica sexually and also with her unpredictable behavior. He could not understand her. They broke up after a year. Then he received a letter from Adrian asking his permission to date Veronica. He was extremely upset and wrote a nasty reply.

    After graduating Tony went to America and took up odd jobs. On returning he learnt that Adrian had committed suicide. This was a devastating news, and the remaining three friends discussed it at great length. Tony remembered Adrian saying that according to Camus ‘suicide is the only true philosophical question’.

    Tony met Margaret, who was non-manipulative and straightforward, completely different from Veronica. They got married, he took up a job, bought a house. They had a daughter, Susie. After several years they got amicably divorced. Tony remained on good terms with his ex-wife and daughter.

    Eventually he retired. He was living comfortably in a flat in London. His life ambled along, uneventful. He did some social work, and was more or less content with his life. His complacency was shaken when he received a parcel from a solicitor’s’ firm, It contained a letter from Mrs. Sarah Hunt, Veronica’s mother, a cheque for 500 pounds and a page written in Adrian’s hand. The page was clearly torn from something. Adrian had written some equations in it which did not make any sense to Tony. His enquiries from the firm revealed that the page was torn from Adrian’s diary and the diary was with Veronica. This eventually led him to Veronica’s brother and Veronica. After many frustrating attempts he met Veronica. And finally she led him to a distant area of London where he saw a somewhat odd young man and his caregivers walking towards them. The young man was ‘a tall, goofy fellow wearing glasses..’ Tony did not understand the point of it until on a later visit to a pub in that area he saw the young man’s face clearly and found a striking resemblance to Adrian. He assumed that the young man was Adrian and Veronica’s son and that he was in the care of an institution.

    In a startling climax of the book, the caregiver tells him that the young man, Adrian was Mary’s brother, not her son. Tony understand what Adrian meant by the equations on the torn page.

    The sense of an ending is an outstanding novel of great depth and originality.

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