Update: December 2012.
It appears that the majority of people who stumble across this review are looking for information about the historian ‘Patrick Lagrange’ . So, allow me to save you the time of research: Patrick Lagrange is not real. He’s a fictional creation of Julian Barnes'; one of the many ironic little jokes at play in this novel.
Being a realist novel about memory and loss (or is it remembrance and grief?), The Sense of an Ending has just been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. It has that kind of middle-brow, middle-class, middle England vibe to it that elevates personal events (or, rather, tragedies) to a level beyond their actual significance, and constructs them with such lofty, psychological and solipsistic language that you’d be forgiven for thinking that our protagonist narrator is the first man in history to have been dumped, or divorced, or grown old, or feel uncomfortable around his grandchildren, or suffer from a weak bladder. I guess it’s down to the caprice of the individual reader whether or not you find such a microscopic and personal focus on what are essentially mundane and universal experiences to be worthy of your time and money (in this case, more money than time – it’s a tiny squit of a novel), and whether a white, middle-class, unremarkable man’s reminiscences of school, history lessons, furious teenage masturbation, dancing and university exams actually make interesting material for a novel. From reading other reviews of the book, it seems ‘identifiability’ is a large part of its appeal (albeit demographically limited). For what it’s worth, I’m not at all averse to such mulchy realist fiction that likes to pretend that modernism didn’t happen; it is, however, fast becoming the ubiquitous genre de rigueur, and Barnes has stiff competition in this field. The Sense of an Ending is a solid addition to the oeuvre, but it’s not remarkable; unfortunately every success is counterpointed by an equally mitigating failure, and the result is something that can’t quite rub shoulders with the best of its ilk.
The narrator is Tony Webster, a sixty-something divorcee, retiree and grandfather. Writing in the first-person past, the novel opens with a long flash-back to Tony’s school/university days, and carries an explicit focus on his friend Adrian, his first love Veronica and the awkward dynamic between the three. This sequence acts as set-up for the rest of the novel, in which the teenage decisions made by our three protagonists re-surface some forty years later, with devastating consequences. In brief: there’s a suicide, a love triangle and the resurgence of an emotionally charged letter. It’s hardly blazingly original, but the ordinariness of its premise is tempered by an intriguing philosophical bent, in which the veracity of memory, documentation and history are constantly challenged. When one character “quotes” a fictional historian, Patrick Lagrange: “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation”, he is unwittingly delineating the crux of the entire novel. Misunderstandings, false remembrance and the unintended ambiguity of the written word are the cause of all our protagonists’ problems – basically, “Lagrange”’s academic idea that the construction of history is problematic is here applied to personal experience. The question seems to be: can we rely on our past, when all we have to prove it is biased, patchy memory and infinitely interpretable documentation?
It’s almost a truism to say that the word-perfect recall of childhood is an idiosyncrasy of the lit fic genre, and initially The Sense of an Ending seems to fall headfirst into this trap: there’s an uncomfortable disconnect between the novel’s assertion that memory is vague, and the photographically exact, highly poetic, vivid and deliberate way in which Tony describes his past. But irony abounds in the second-half, in which the credibility of Tony’s recollections and his confidence in the same is rigorously tested: the once impregnable bastion of his memory crumbles until all that remains is doubt. – Essentially, several people’s memories of the same events disagree, and with no higher authority than memory to adjudicate, the unnerving conclusion is a depressing but nonetheless apposite deconstruction of the entire notion of objective personal history. The narrative is unstable, founded on a memory sequence which is entirely unreliable.
Not that The Sense of an Ending is a radical and reactionary attack on realist fiction – far from it; we’ve already established how run-of-the-mill much of this book is – but the ironic treatment of recollections of childhood is a satisfying deviation from genre norms, and highlights one of my most frequent frustrations with this type of writing.
To return to themes: regret, memory, bias, grief: these aren’t covert threads which I’ve insightfully unpicked with superhuman critical thinking (ha!), they’re explicit aspects of the narration, spelled out (literally) for the reader in long passages of philosophical self-analyses. The Sense of an Ending’s cast are all armchair psychiatrists, and while much of this is interesting, even moving and poetic, much more of it lapses into a kind of cod-psychology. Tony definitely changes (dare I say ‘grows’?) as a character, and in this respect The Sense of an Ending functions as a strange take on the bildungsroman: in his sixties, Tony is still coming of age. But his description and self-pitying analysis of this personal growth is just cringe-inducingly pseudo: “To die when something new is being born – even if that something new is our very own self”. Similarly: “Life isn’t just addition and subtraction. There’s also multiplication, of loss.” It’s relentlessly naff, even his description of dancing is a text-booky excuse for “insightful” (read: hackneyed) introspection: “Basic male display behaviour of the period, determinedly individualistic while actually dependent on a strict imitation of prevailing norms”.
But there’s a disparity, because such wordy, robotic narration is coupled with frequent interjections of slang and profanity which, frankly, I don’t want to hear coming from a sixty year old narrator. Constant references to ‘snogging’, ‘wanking’, ‘tits’ etc. are just so at odds with the otherwise high register of the book that I began to wonder if Barnes was taking the piss and making fun of his own protagonist – but I’m not sure, because neither seriousness nor satire are consistent enough that one dominates the other. Tony is a well-read, intelligent narrator who makes frequent appeals to propriety – but undermines himself with this occasional lapse into slang (I’m 26, and I don’t know anybody who uses the word ‘snogging’…) The Sense of an Ending is tonally indecisive, to the extent that I was unsure whether to laugh at Tony, or pity him. As a narrator he’s often erratic and unknowable, which is fine, even interesting, but as a character he’s just discrepant and irritatingly inconsistent.
The Sense of an Ending is a half-decent stab at the old-man-whose-mistakes-are-catching-up-with-him yarn, but the scales of success//failure are equally balanced. There’s a narrative visual concern with the act of opening letters and the physical description of envelopes which contrasts nicely with later depictions of e-mails and text messages, likewise the dialogue is incredibly strong; moving and believable; stylised but not arch. But equally, many passages read like a sixth-form student’s pop-psychology essay – and long descriptions of mundane, commonplace activities may put-off readers who’re looking for something… I want to say ‘bigger’, but that implies that the personal and everyday is insignificant, so I’ll just say, it may put-off readers who’re looking for… escapism. Much of the book is dependent upon the reader buying-into the notion of a teenager philosophically arguing himself into suicide; similarly the book’s dénouement is abrupt, leftfield, and isn’t especially satisfying.
My fundamental itch, however, is that I’ve seen this sort of thing done much better elsewhere. If you’re especially intrigued by a man’s simultaneous ruminations on the romantic mistakes of his youth and the existential despair/regret of his old age, then I recommend you try either Everyman by Philip Roth, or the perfect On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan – both of which are vastly more successful versions of what Julian Barnes has, only somewhat prosperously, attempted.