The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes

I was amused at Barnes's cheek in using the same title as Frank Kermode's influential book on the theory of fiction, and even more amused when I saw a reference to it on the first page (“tick-tock”). Having just read Barnes's remarkable nonfiction book, Nothing to Be Frightened Of, a meditation on how to live with the idea that we will eventually die and disappear, I was also moved by the title and thought of Kermode's description of “our deep need for intelligible Ends.” Kermode goes on to say, “We project ourselves . . . past the End, so as to see the structure whole, a thing we cannot do from our spot of time in the middle.”

I read this book twice, the first time for my book club. Tony Webster, retired, divorced, content with his unremarkable life, thinks back over his personal history, recounting episodes as he has always understood them. Then, the re-emergence of two friends from his past throws his understanding of those episodes into question.

I read quickly, page-turning indeed, to find a path out of my bafflement. Not that each scene wasn't precisely clear; it was. But I felt there was something more that I should understand, an underlying connection that was eluding me. We are set up from the beginning to expect more. “I remember” are the first words, and the first scene is from Tony's schooldays, in history class, where the new student, Adrian, makes a remark about the impossibility of ever knowing the truth about what happened. That sense of unease kept me reading until the end, although even then, as one of my book club friends said, we still don't know the truth; only what we are told by Tony.

History, time, memory: these are potent subjects, all the more so for me having just read Absalom, Absalom.

I actually enjoyed my second reading even more, going more slowly, seeing how each detail fit neatly into the whole. What a gem of a book! Tony has always felt in control of his life, but when he examines his memories, he finds instead that he has let things happen to him, settled for a peaceful life instead of the extravagant dreams of youth. What he believed were free choices were constrained by the forms imposed by his historical context (the times), and his understanding of them colored by his need for causality.

Kermode talks (with reference to Iris Murdoch and Ortega y Gasset) about the impossibility of a novel ever actually being true to life. A novel “imposes causality, development, character, a past which matters and a future within certain broad limits determined by the project of the author rather than that of the characters. They have their choices, but the novel has its end.” Thus, I was amused all over again by this meta-fiction, both the author and the narrator struggling to balance the messy facts of a life with the structure we require. The trick that Barnes pulls on the reader, well, me anyway, is to maintain all the uncertainty while creating a solid structure with every detail slotted into place.


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