To be honest, I don’t really know what to say about Julian Barnes’ Sense of an Ending, and I mean that in the best way possible. I was chatting about it with @bookgaga on Twitter, and the more we talked about the book, the deeper and more complex I felt the book was. I liked Ending. It’s one of those books I wish I owned rather than just borrowed, because there were just so many passages I wanted to highlight. Reading it at a coffee shop, I alternated between “Hmm…” and “Ooh, so true.”
I read Ending because my co-worker, whose book taste I trust, told me to. “You told me to read Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand,” she said. “I’m returning the favour and telling you to read this book.” We both adore Major Pettigrew (my review here), and Ending is such a wonderfully short book (only 150 pages!) that I figure I might as well. (For the record, I still like Major Pettigrew better, because I got more lost in that story than in this one.) Ending is about Tony Webster, an elderly man who receives a letter from a lawyer that causes him to think about his past. A huge part of that past are Tony’s school friend Adrian, and Tony’s first serious girlfriend Veronica. As the book’s jacket tells us, “[m]emory […] is imperfect,” and Tony is forced to rethink some of the ways he’s viewed the events in his life.
Barnes caught me with the first chapter, but that may be just because I’m a sucker for school stories. I love the schoolboy humour: for example, asked to elaborate on what he meant by there being “unrest” during Henry VIII’s reign, a student replies, “I’d say there was great unrest, sir.” Juvenile, but the narrator uses that same line (“There was unrest. Great unrest.”) to end the book, and that just blew me away. What had begun as a throwaway schoolboy comment had, by the end of the story, become utterly profound. What else, after all, is there to say about life?
I also love the self-conscious reflection of the adult narrator: “Yes, of course we were pretentious — what else is youth for?” I cringe now when I remember how self-righteous and self-important I was at various episodes in school — were we ever really so naive? Barnes’ school scenes remind me of Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies (brilliant book!), but with too much adult self-reflection to enter the teenage psyche as completely as Murray did.
Ending isn’t about a schoolboy, but about a man having to give up the pretensions and illusions he’d had as a boy. From looking forward to having a girlfriend to falling in love with Veronica only to have her break his heart. From dreaming of changing the world only to end up with a rather unremarkable life.
I have to admit, it took me a while to warm up to the post-school part of the book, and that’s mostly because I found Veronica such an unlikable character. She’s cold and manipulative and I just got really annoyed at Tony for being so much in love with her. I kept wanting him to dump her, and, with such a short book, was afraid the book was going to be all about their romance. In my snap judgment of Veronica, I admit I fell into the same trap Tony falls into over and over again, and perhaps my reaction to Veronica is a testament to how skillfully Barnes has used Tony as a narrator. I went from accepting Tony’s view as gospel to realizing he jumps to conclusions so often that his opinions can’t really be trusted.
“History isn’t the lies of the victors,” Tony tells us. “It’s more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated.” It’s a profound statement, and one that raises so many questions about the nature of history. What role then would these survivors have played in history, and what kind of agenda do they now have in telling us the story? If they were on the sidelines, how much did they actually know about what happened? In the case of Tony’s history, we learn that he constantly has to rewrite his view of the past, as he continues to find out new things. Barnes gets a bit too obvious with comments like “Annie was part of my story, but not of this story.” We get it! Tony is a narrator controlling the information we get, and I’m sure university English classes will have lots to discuss about lines like that and the role of the narrator. Luckily, however, Barnes also reveals it well through the plot.
We learn, along with Tony, that history, even personal history, isn’t absolute. Just because we learn another facet of someone’s story doesn’t mean we know his or her whole story. So, in the end, when certain discoveries lead Tony to revise his thinking on a couple of major characters, I found his new views yet another absolute and therefore not to be trusted. Yes, certain discoveries cast a more damning or more sympathetic light towards some characters. However, by the end of Ending, I’ve read enough to say, not “Now I understand him/her better,” but “what else have we not been told about him/her?”