The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes is a very short novel, more of a novella at only 163 pages, that has appeared on list after list after list of 2011 Best Books of the Year. I didn’t know much about this book, but since it won the Man Booker prize, was short, was about memory and perception, and became available at the library, I decided to give it a go. The novella tells the story of Tony Webster, a 60ish man reflecting back on time spent and interactions with his college girlfriend Veronica and genius childhood friend Adrian.
It’s actually almost impossible to go into what I didn’t like about the book without spoiling it for anyone who wants to read it. While the novel’s musings about our memory’s handling of time and our own life histories are infinitely quotable, the plot meanders about through the lives of a few rather unlikeable characters with little emotion or personality behind them, other than the caricatures they are made out to be. The plot is more a vehicle for the quotable (and highly insightful) musings than a story well-told. Don’t get me wrong – the novella is beautifully written, and this would not cause me to rule out reading more Barnes’ works. But Veronica’s cryptic dialogue & her lack of any redeeming traits did make me wonder if Barnes thinks women are, as Tony’s ex-wife put it, easily categorized into two camps: “those with clear edges to them, and those who implied mystery.” Veronica, of course, was supposed to be in the latter camp.
I did enjoy and agree with many of the musings about life, and how our memories are dynamic as opposed to static – self-editing over time, how we can feel one way about our pasts one moment, then look at it through another lens & our opinion of it completely changes. Here are a few of those quotes I was talking about:
I’d read somewhere that if you want to make people pay attention to what you’re saying, you don’t raise your voice but lower it: this is what really commands attention.
We live with such easy assumptions, don’t we? For instance, that memory equals events plus time. But it’s all much odder than this. Who was it said that memory is what we thought we’d forgotten? And it out to be obvious to us that time doesn’t act as a fixative, rather as a solvent. But it’s not convenient–it’s not useful–to believe this; it doesn’t help us get on with our lives, so we ignore it.
In my terms, I settled for the realities of life, and submitted to its necessities: if this, then that, and so the years passed. In Adrian’s terms, I gave up on life, gave up on examining it, took it as it came. And so, for the first time, I began to feel a more general remorse–a feeling somewhere between self-pity and self-hatred–about my whole life. All of it. I had lost the friends of my youth. I had lost the love of my wife. I had abandoned the ambitions I had entertained. I had wanted life not to bother me too much, and had succeeded–and how pitiful that was.
When you are in your twenties, even if you’re confused and uncertain about your aims and purposes, you have a strong sense of what life itself is, and of what you in life are, and might become. Later … later there is more uncertainty, more overlapping, more backtracking, more false memories. Back then, you can remember your short life in its entirety. Later, the memory becomes a thing of shreds and patches. It’s a bit like the black box aeroplanes carry to record what happens in a crash. If nothing goes wrong, the tape erases itself. So if you do crash, it’s obvious why you did; if you don’t, then the log of your journey is much less clear.
So, yes, insightful and quotable. But as for the story itself, Veronica was constantly telling Tony: “You just don’t get it, do you? You never did, and you never will.” That’s probably true about me and the plot of this novella. Or, I understood the overall purpose, but found the story a weak delivery vehicle.