The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes

Update: December 2012.

Patrick Lagrange.

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.

Tomcat.

TSOAEBeing 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.

Tomcat

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17 responses to “The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes

  1. Not a fan then Tom?

    Kevin of kevinfromcanada was very taken by this (I wondered if you’d read his review and were referring to it when you mentioned identifiability).

    I like the analysis of it as essentially a genre work, but in doing so I think you make a very profound criticism of it. Still, while I might enjoy it (I’ve enjoyed Barnes in the past) it does sound a bit genre.

    Did you read the New Statesman review of this? It’s available online and is very interesting. It goes back to Josipovici and uses this as an argument in favour of his thesis about the smallness of contemporary English fiction. It also criticises (if I recall correctly) the book for not leaving anything for the reader to discover – for making its themes all too explicit so that there was nothing left for the reader to do and no possibiliity of finding their own interpretations. Your review makes a similar point I note.

    Philosophical suicide is explored well (though many disagree) by Martin Amis in Night Train (which I’ve reviewed at mine – flawed but I had a lot of time for it). You rate On Chesil Beach then?

    • Many thanks for reading and commenting.

      I didn’t hate TSOAE, but I didn’t love it either; In modern parlance, I just found it all a bit ‘meh’. Many of the attempts at psychoanalysis left my cringing; likewise the repetitive nature of the slag which, rather than adding to character depth, detracted from it.

      Josipovici is very relevant here: TSOAE is one of those recent English idiosyncrasies that likes to pretend that modernism never happened – incredibly small, uber-realist stuff that talks about garden parties and infidelity and school bullying as if these were world-shattering events of universal interest and import. I’m not saying realist fiction is de facto irrelevant – far from it – but it’s been done much better elsewhere. And yeah, I do love ‘On Chesil Beach’ it’s kind of the paradigmatic perfect example of what Barnes is trying to do here. Only Chesil Beach isn’t so microcosmic, because it has massive sociological points to make: Edward and Florence’s tragedy is a result of repressive 1950s society and an attendant inability to articulate both emotional and bodily truths: Chesil Beach extends the minutiae of this relationship into wider concerns and ideas about religion, repression, forgiveness, etc while simultaneously crafting a unique visual language (both actual and metaphoric) in the seascape of the beach itself. Similarly it carries a set of internal tensions that’re just mesmerising to read about: history vs. science, music (classical vs. blues), poverty vs. wealth – as well as the more obvious and heart-breaking four-way sexual incompatibility which rends the lovers: frigidity vs. lust vs. inexperience vs. anxiety. It’s just a much, much better example of a similar thing: a novella about an old(er) man looking back on love/mistakes/loss etc. with a sense of regret. Plus the beauty of McEwan’s parlance, his utter lack of adverbial constructs yet simultaneous mastery of the compound-complex sentence all contribute to my bias. I much prefer McEwan in minor mode – and while him and his whole ilk aren’t really my thing, I do appreciate his talents.

      Sorry: that turned into a bit of a micro-review.
      Whoops.

      Best,
      Tc.

  2. I find dullness particularly hard to forgive in a book. It’s why I think middlebrow is such an insult. Lowbrow can be exciting and fun. Highbrow can be challenging and invigorating. Middlebrow tends to be just comforting, but I have a duvet for that.

    Not that the various brows really mean anything. In a sense each brow description is just a different kind of insult. Still, I did recognise what Josipovici meant when he talked of a certain kind of meanness of vision and I am deeply fatigued with novels/novellas in which some quotidian event becomes a revelation for yet another member of the comfortable middle classes.

    The mini-review of On Chesil Beach was interesting. I’ve seen it criticised on the grounds of likelihood – would even conservative people of that period have been quite that ignorant? Do you have any thoughts on that? Does it matter?

    • I think to criticise On Chesil Beach on the grounds of likelihood would be pretty weak. I know people who’re naive/ignorant today, to imagine such people existing 60 years ago isn’t any kind of stretch. Besides, McEwan lays the groundwork with his flashbacks which attest to Florence’s uber-Catholic, repressed upbringing. I was convinced.

      Always thought ‘realism’ was a wishy-washy, unstable and ambiguous critical term anyway.

      • I think realism is a valid term where a novel sets out to be realistic. Obviously many don’t. McEwan sometimes feels to me as if he is reaching for realism in the sense of credibility of character portrait but fails because the plot overrides the charterisation.

        I agree though it’s not the most useful of terms. Certainly used bare it’s meaningless. If you say something’s unrealistic you have to say at the very least why and why that’s a valid criticism.

  3. I just didnt like this one Tomcat and the fact it was short was not even a blessing as I still didn’t finish it. *The fact you called it a tiny squit of a novel has made me laugh and laugh and laugh.* I just thought it was middle class twaddle and didn’t care. It’s won now so more and more people will be buying and reading it and thats fine. I just think two books for older middle class people winning the Booker, and also being bridesmaids to the prize before, shock, is rather saddening for a prize which could and should be exciting.

    Oh and I do like Barnes, I loved Arthur and George, I just didnt love, or even like, this book.

  4. Just read this and couldn’t agree more with this review. I did essentially enjoy the book but I am disappointed it won the Booker when as you say it seems to be retreading ground that’s been well covered before. The philosophical sections were profound on occassion but you’re quite right to point out how jarring and underwhelming it is when these sections also come across as a sixth form lecture. Also just read A Visit from the Goon Squad, which in my view is far more deserving of praise.

  5. I believe most of the reviewers on this page missed the depth of Barnes’ book altogether. Alas, far too few people these days seem to be sophisticated enough to understand references to philosophical traditions. Barnes use of these traditions in going from theme to character makes this book refreshingly different from the standard emotional approach to fiction which invariably generates the same “small” themes that can be ‘shown without being told’ (precisely because because they are mundane enough to be recognized). I wish there were more books like “The Sense of an Ending” and “Disgrace” (Coetzee) for those among us who enjoy larger themes.

  6. Perhaps that would have been more persuasive Magus had you indicated what in your view some of those depths and larger themes were. As it is you’re in mere ad hominem territory, which doesn’t really add a lot.

    Which philosophical traditions were you thinking of by the way? Having now read it there’s some fairly obvious referencing to the Stoic tradition, but a reader unfamiliar with say Marcus Aurelius and Seneca (both of whom I’ve read) wouldn’t miss much by reason of that lack.

  7. Pingback: some approximate memories which time has deformed into certainty | Pechorin’s Journal

  8. I’ve listened to the book twice now on Audio Book whilst driving long journeys. The first time I listened I was very taken with the style of Tony’s narration and I kept thinking how heartily I would recommend this book – until it came to its end and it seemed that the author had spotted a chance amongst so many threads to try and deliver a high-impact ending – an ending that just did not add up. We may say ‘oh well, it is unreliable memoirs after all,’ …but I felt somewhat cheated. We come to a book as an investment and expect quite reasonably with a celebrated author that we are in good hands to receive a return on our investment.

    On the second listening, my goal was to see if the fault lay with me; had I missed a logical construction that made the ending sensible? And so I came to this blog and some others, where I saw that contributors had studied the Adrian equations like some DaVinci code and yet had achieved no greater clarity. Because there is no clarity and the ending seems to have been grafted onto a novel that was progressing solidly toward a more sensible concusion, ie: that Tony had deliberately put out of his mind the damning letter that cursed Adrian’s relationship with Veronica and then had to ruminate later how that curse had become manifest in some way.

    The book is an opportunity missed, and an opportunity for an author to be honest with readers. John Barnes silence on the subject, (other than to say that the book probably needs to be read twice ), is quite irritating. Its like a magician claiming that a failed trick was the intended outcome. And the Booker prize award, therefore, seems so empty, like a celebration of inadequacy. Rest easily Philip Roth, the English novel is a pretender to greatness…

  9. I’d make two comments George.

    Firstly, the book isn’t remotely about what happened, it’s about memory. What happened is ultimately unknowable, and in any event determining causes is just a cheap way of trying to create a narrative truth to life that life doesn’t offer. That’s the point of the book in a nutshell really. We can’t know why what happened, happened. It’s not even a particularly meaningful question. This is a novel which in part is addressing the ways in which life isn’t like a novel.

    Secondly though the book does give a pretty good idea of what happened. Tony has a relationship with Veronica. They break up and she goes out with Adrian. Tony sends a bitter letter and suggests that Adrian speak to Veronica’s mother. Adrian has an affair with Veronica’s mother (possibly prompted by the letter, possibly not, that’s unknowable). Veronica’s mother has a handicapped child. Adrian commits suicide (possibly for very prosaic reasons, possibly for the philosophical ones he claims). The child appears to be Adrian’s.

    There’s no great mystery there, save some details and Tony can never know those because most of those involved are dead and so can’t tell him. Even if they were alive though he’d never know whether his letter actually made a difference to anything. In that it’s like life. If this were all true then the real Tony would never know the answers to those questions. He would have no way of finding out. So as it would be in life, so in the book.

    The book has flaws, but the ending isn’t tacked on. People seem to treat the book as a whydunnit, but it’s not. Barnes is not responsible for people wanting the book to be something it never seeks to be.

    The Booker is a crap prize, but Barnes has been honest. The book is not a mystery novel, it’s a novel of memory and the impossibility of reconstruction of the past and in that it’s absolutely honest to its aims.

  10. The Sense of an Ending:
    I wanted to read it for so long, that when I did read it I was spellbound by the way Mr. Julian Barnes walked me through the intricacies we build around ourselves to prove our wrongs into being right and making others pain look like selfish deeds.
    I like it when an author takes our life’s most basic yet overlooked moments and present it to us in a way we never thought about… For that simple reason I enjoyed reading it!

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