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The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
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Apr 11, 12

Read in December, 2011

THE SENSE OF AN ENDING is by one of the notable group of contemporary British authors (including Barnes, Amis, McEwan, Rushdie, and Ishiguro) who have reached such a level of public prominence that their writings have become secondary at times to their political pronouncements, personal tiffs, and non-literary activities. Nonetheless, celebrity status aside, their books more often than not offer good value for time spent. The present slim volume was recently awarded the Man Booker Prize, a first for Julian Barnes in spite of several deserving novels, including FLAUBERT'S PARROT and ARTHUR & GEORGE among others. Although I am not prepared to suggest that the Man Booker committee regarded this prize as a lifetime achievement award to its distinguished colleague, it was clearly a controversial choice in the view of both critics and readers.

The title of the book is derived from a published series of lectures by the late professor and critic of English literarture Frank Kermode on the topic of apocalyptic crisis and chaos with respect to literary works. In an ironic way, the brief tale of the protagonist, a rather dull, complacent, and late-middle-aged Tony Webster, fits Kermode's rather more grandiose eschatological tenets. Tony is forced to review aspects of his early life by a peculiar bequest he has received and, as a result, to reflect upon his comfortable, if drab, self-image. Eventually, he must reconfigure his personal history and his relationships to people distant in his memory. In a sense, Tony's life journey has hit a crater along its previous rather smooth highway. He must recollect events with his male school companions, specifically the brilliant if somewhat iconoclastic Adrian Finn, and his enigmatic college girlfriend Veronica Ford. It is difficult to say more about the plot and characters without revealing details that will spoil the conclusion for some potential readers. It is sufficient to say that Tony is forced to remember more than he is willing to recall (or relate) as the result of a letter he once sent (which comes to light after his unexpected inheritance). He must reconsider the nature of his past personal relations, the behavior of his friends, and the direction of his own life. In a sense, Tony must recognize that one's perceived life stories are not only often faulty, but may actual contain counterfactuals that render them counterfeit. One's past, as with history itself, is not simply the lies of the victors nor the delusions of the defeated: "It's more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated."

The ownership of our personal past is both transitory and questionable...truly a Hegelian question for which there is rarely a synthesis. Questions of age, time, and mortality only serve to confuse our understanding. Tony must finally conclude that "when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others."

There is much to consider in this short book as we unpeel its layers, but there are serious flaws that deflect its trajectory. In part, the emphasis by the author on its "surprise ending" seems more of a contrived invention than a revelation based on philosophical insight or profound reflection. Moreover, the characterization of key players, even from Tony's questionable perspectives, is far too superficial with respect to both Adrian and Veronica. Veronica, in fact, constantly tells Tony that he does not understand and never will..."so stop even trying." Is she speaking specifically of their past or is she reflecting on the larger question of comprehending alternate versions of one's history? We can never really tell despite the ultimate revelations.

This is a book worth perusing with care for its narrative and prose. Although it raises issues of profundity, the style is mostly light and humorous. Nonetheless, such lucidity of structure does not suffice for the lack of character development, which can be partly explained by a desire by Barnes to intrigue the reader with a twist at the conclusion. This device (dare I say, gimmick) is not only questionable, but I believe diminishes the volume's more serious intent and sends the reader back not to relish the serious commentary or elegant writing, but to search for clues like a postmodern detective. Alas, there is much to praise here, but THE SENSE OF ENDING would have been a better novel without its...nonsense of an ending.

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Dagný Excellent review! As I indicated in the context of another of your reviews, I was not moved by the book, yet its reception made me question my own judgement. I could see how it was competently written, how it contained elegiac existential questions, but it did not grip me. Your insights about the lack of character development and the reliance of plot contrivance instead of profundity explains a lot to me.
I wondered if the novel's skittishness was in turn supposed to convey a reflection on the main character? But felt that such a standpoint would have to be provided within the novel, or else one would/ could say that about any piece of art; it is superficial but that's the point. Such a "standpoint" can be legitimate within the context of art at large, as when a convention is deliberately broken, but else the work of art needs to stand on its own; seduce, convince, give and take, but this did not happen in this novel for me.
Thank you for articulating everything so well in your wonderfully balanced review!


message 15: by THE (last edited Dec 20, 2011 02:11PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

THE Thanks for the kind words Dagny...I kept wanting to say more about the book, suggesting that the theme reminded me to an extent of other works, especially one or two by Anita Brookner (who actually reviewed this one and found it "masterful" to my surprise). Clearly, Barnes is in command of language and judiciously delivers his punch lines within his well-ordered plot, but there is something almost (or at least, opaquely) manipulative within his structure and character delineation. Barnes expertise as a novelist reminded me of what Thornton Wilder suggested after reading a series of fine plays to which he "graded" each with an A, but nonetheless, was not "being overwhemed by an artistic creation." As you suggest, this novel fails that artistic test.


Judith I enjoyed your book review and I learned 2 new words: counterfactuals and Hegelian. You are always teaching me something new. But since I am about #99 on the list at the library for this book, I will have to remember to refer back to your review when I finally get the book.


THE Thanks Judith. As you can see, this book promotes some ambivalent perspectives so we look forward to your comments on plot, characters, and themes.


message 12: by Scott (new)

Scott Hey I have a question. Is this book explicit? Moreover, does it have sexually explicit scenes? Thanks!


THE No, although there is a single image within the extended first sentence that some have found distasteful as far as being explicit. Otherwise, nothing that I am aware of within the pages.


message 10: by Rosa (new) - rated it 3 stars

Rosa Really enjoyed reading your review, and completely agree about how well-crafted the sentences are, and how woefully undeveloped two of the key players are, right up to the "nonsensical" ending - doesn't it almost feel like he was trying to dodge the issue of making any sense of Veronica? Almost as if Barnes had expended so much effort enshrouding her character and Adrian's in mystery, he couldn't find his way back out...


THE Thanks Rosa...a very perceptive comment about Veronica. I think that you have put your finger on a key failing. The author seemed exhausted and unwilling to expand the novel and offer a richer layer of character development. In a sense, Barnes was indeed baffled by his own tale and squandered an opportunity to make sense of the ending.


Pearl Tony appears to be incapable of coming to any real insights. He finally unravels the mystery of his bequest and, in so doing, he gets some closure, some Sense of an ending." But what does he
really learn? I didn't know if he was lacking or if Barnes was.


THE I agree Pearl, there is an ambivalence. In interviews, Barnes has been reluctant to speak at all about the conclusion. Of course, we might, suggest that the ambiguity of being human is reflected in Tony's misapprehensions and inadequate understanding, which once again suggests Frank Kermode's ideas on the enigma of existence.


Remittance Girl THE wrote: "the emphasis by the author on its 'surprise ending' seems more of a contrived invention than a revelation based on philosophical insight or profound reflection".

You make a very good point here. And my guess is that this is why so many people have found the ending unsatisfactory. And 'surprises' go, it isn't much of one (considering Mrs. Ford's blithe disposal of the broken egg and her enigmatic hand gestures). I wonder if Barnes decided he had to have a 'surprise' ending to plump up the plot because, as you have said, the characterization leaves so much to be desired.


Daniel I was expecting a book full of insights, half essay half narrative, and what I come up with in the end is a mediocre ending of a detectivesque tale. It is a shame because it seemed promising. Is Flaubert's Parrot any different?


THE You are quite right Daniel, the French word detectivesque is a perfect description for a most imperfect and disappointing novel. I think that you may find FLAUBERT'S PARROT both more entertaining and intellectually satisfying since in spite of his present miscue, Barnes is a talented and provocative author, who is quite capable of offering a satisfying narrative and some powerful insights.


Edward Elegantly stated, especially your "... I believe diminishes the volume's more serious intent and sends the reader back not to relish the serious commentary or elegant writing, but to search for clues like a postmodern detective." The novel is really moving in two directions; I read it twice, the first time I was moved by its "serious" intent in examining the "ownership of our past", but the second time around, nearly a year later, in spite of myself, I turned into a "postmodern detective" and became obsessed by the ending. I don't think a novel can have it both ways, and your comments perceptively explain why.(less)
0 minutes ago ·


THE Thanks for the kind words Edward. This novel almost demands a second reading, which is what the author has stated, but you have expressed the reaction that many of us have had: in spite of its intent and fine writing, "things fall apart, the centre cannot hold" (to steal a line from Yeats).


Pearl @THE, "and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned." Poor Tony % friends.


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