The Sense of an Ending is my first foray into the world of Julian Barnes’ lyrical prose, and I am bowled over. There is hardly any place in the novella where you won’t find a passage worth quoting. But the writing is just the tip of the iceberg; this Man Booker winner begs the question, how infallible is one’s memory?
Tony Webster – once married, successfully divorced – is quietly enjoying his retirement when a letter from a solicitor arrives with an enclosure. The enclosure is a letter from Sarah Ford, the mother of his erstwhile college sweetheart Veronica. Tony met Sarah only once, when Veronica brought him home over the holidays to meet her family several decades before. In her letter, Sarah bequeathed upon Tony two things: the diary of his old friend, Adrian, with whom Veronica had taken up after breaking things off with Tony, and “a little money.” She also apologized for the way her family had treated him during that isolated visit to their home, and wished him well, “even beyond the grave.” In answer to his silent questions, the solicitor’s letter informs Tony that Mrs Ford has drawn up her will five years prior, and that the diary mentioned in her letter is still in the possession of her daughter, Veronica.
The letter comes as a surprise, after nearly 40 years of silence, and its contents baffle Tony even more. Why was Sarah in possession of a diary owned by his friend Adrian? Why was she leaving him money? His tumultuous relationship with Veronica decades ago had ended even worse than the actual affair, which was already bad enough, and Adrian had committed suicide at a time when Tony had severed ties with them both. Sarah’s letter, therefore, prompts Tony to re-examine a cache of memories involving himself, Adrian, and Veronica.
This cache of memories, however, yields only the vaguest of remembrances. Tony himself could not ascertain their veracity, therefore fueling, instead of unraveling, the mysteries brought about by Sarah’s letter. Because Tony speaks solely from memory, it cannot be gleaned if he is telling the whole truth or leaving out portions, inadvertently or otherwise. Neither can it be determined if the omitted portions were repressed by way of self-preservation – something Tony prided himself with.
I certainly believe we all suffer damage, one way or another. How could we not, except in a world of perfect parents, siblings, neighbours, companions? And then there is the question, on which so much depends, of how we react to the damage: whether we admit it or repress it, and how this affects our dealings with others. Some admit the damage, and try to mitigate it; some spend their lives trying to help others who are damaged; and then there are those whose main concern is to avoid further damage to themselves, at whatever cost. And those are the ones who are ruthless, and the ones to be careful of.
The novella begins with an enumeration of rather imprecise recollections culled from Tony’s memory which are either corroborated or dispelled as the story progresses. At the outset, Tony delivers a disclaimer: what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed. Understanding his story, therefore, involves a demanding exercise in weeding out what may be true and what may be false, for lack of sufficient corroboration. And when that’s done, the pieces that are true must be fit together; one can’t simply rely on memories alone.
The Sense of an Ending is divided into two parts. The first part is a flashback to more than 40 years ago, when Tony and his crew first meet Adrian, then a newcomer in school. They were different in many ways, but Adrian fit their group like a glove. Adrian was reserved, thoughtful, and had a quiet intellect that commanded acquiescence and respect. When one of the students in their school suddenly committed suicide, Adrian cited Camus and said that suicide was the “only true philosophical question.” They part ways in college, where Tony meets Veronica and embarks on a chaotic relationship with her. Eventually, Veronica meets Tony’s friends, which included Adrian. Tony had intuited it, but he felt betrayed anyway when Veronica breaks up with him and hooks up with Adrian. Not even Adrian’s subsequent suicide reconciled them.
The second part deals with the present time, which includes the arrival of the letter from the solicitor and the distorted perusal of Tony’s cluttered memories. Desiring to be in possession of Adrian’s diary and in order to shed light on the contents of Sarah’s letter, Tony decides to disregard old grievances and contact Veronica, who apparently had not done the same. She insisted that Tony just “doesn’t get it” and he never will, and Tony is left to his own devices.
In the end, after all the evidence had been proffered and ample corroboration had been given, Tony is able to draw up a reasonable conclusion. For this reader, the urge to read again from the beginning was overwhelming.
The Sense of an Ending is one of those books that will make its reader ache for someone to discuss it with, someone who can help make "sense of its ending." I did, and desperately. The conclusion that Tony had arrived at is there, but this time, it’s the reader who is encouraged to seek validation, to extract substantiation from Tony’s erratic remembrances. Did Adrian’s suicide and Sarah’s bequest finally make sense, albeit one doesn’t necessarily involve the other? Is Veronica justified in her hostility towards Tony even years after their ugly separation? Are Tony’s recollections and fading memory accurate, or did he repress specific memories in order to blot out his regrets and/or shame?
To die when something new is being born – even if that something new is our very own self? Because just as all political and historical change sooner or later disappoints, so does adulthood. So does life. Sometimes I think the purpose of life is to reconcile us to its eventual loss by wearing us down, by proving, however long it takes, that life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
I am not fond of rereading, even with books that I particularly love, but The Sense of an Ending is one that I would gladly pick up and read all over again. The change in perspective, knowing how it all ends, will affect a subsequent analysis of Tony’s actuations, or lack thereof. Much in the same vein, I now fully appreciate what they say about the unreliability of a story told from the first-person point of view. I used to have a difficult time accepting a first-person narrator’s “reliably unreliable” account of events that form the structure and core of the story (e.g., Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day). Now, however, I fully understand the concept, and the attendant supposition of the infallibility of memory.
Book Details: Trade paperback, bought from Book Depository