Review: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes book cover
The Sense of an Ending (2011) is Julian Barnes’s Booker prize-winning exploration of time and memory. A short novel, The Sense of the Ending follows the life of Tony Webster through his time as a pseudo-intellectual adolescent and later as his looks back at his former self and his life. The young Tony was part of a four-set at school with Alex, Colin and the incisively intelligent, Adrian. The four engage in schoolyard philosophising, but begin to drift apart when they each set off for different universities. When Adrian, now a student at Cambridge, begins to date the enigmatic but difficult, Veronica, Tony’s ex-girlfriend, the group disintegrates altogether, with Tony writing Adrian and Veronica a bile-filled letter expressing his opinion of them both. After graduation Tony goes travelling in America, and it’s here that the news of Adrian’s suicide reaches him. Seen as a philosophical act by one who has rejected the premise of life, the suicide fails to bring the group back together, and Tony continues on to lead an unextraordinary life. On retirement, Tony, now a divorcee and father to one married daughter, is forced to look back on his youth after he receives an unexpected bequest. As he is drawn back into Veronica’s world, he begins to question his own perception of history and, in line with Veronica’s consistent admonishments, attempts to ‘get it’.

The idea that memory is an entirely subjective concept, distorted by time and subsequent events, is visited repeatedly, and touches on something very poignant about human psychology and the way we subconsciously doctor our personal history to make it congruent with our own self-perception and subjective reality. The extent to which each of us must take responsibility for the lives and decisions of others is also discussed, with Tony forming part of an equation that brought about tragedy, but only a small part. That the narrative skipped over some of forty years of Tony’s life illustrates how little of significance Tony achieved during those years, and there’s a pathos and poignancy to his character as he looks back to the unadventurous and hollow life he has led, which will strike a chord with many.

The Sense of an Ending is tightly-plotted and comfortably concise. There is a slightly mechanical sense to the writing, but one quickly overcomes this. For a novel that feels a little straight-forward in style, The Sense of an Ending really grabs one’s attention and demands to be read in a sitting. The neat use of imagery, particularly the time/water parallel with reference to the Severn Bore and the egg broken by Veronica’s mother foreshadowing her later tragedy, is well-executed, if not the most subtle part of the novel. If one was to make a criticism of the style, it would be that the build-up to the final revelation feels a little contrived, with a great deal of dramatic, but slightly silly, circumlocution. The characters themselves are all entirely ordinary. They possess no special qualities and are thrust into barely exceptional circumstances. Clearly Barnes is writing the human condition as a general rule. As a narrator, Tony’s claims to have remembered only part of his past at times feels ingenuous - particularly based on the baroness of the rest of his life, and the reader is left to question whether his unreliability is as a consequence of natural human decay, or if he is being selectively honest with the reader.

The letter which Tony sends to Veronica and Adrian is likely a reflection of the infamous letter that Barnes sent his then friend, Martin Amis, following their falling out, and there is definitely a sense of atonement and self-contemplation present in the novel. The Ending of the title can be read as either an allusion to death, or as the conclusion to episodes in one’s life; as one draws closer to the ultimate ending, the latter becomes more important: the making sense of one’s life. At the novel’s close Tony apportions a wholly unreasonable amount of blame on his own head and it’s hard to grasp whether he believes in personal responsibility to this extent, or whether he simply believes himself to be responsible for all bad things – after all he was but a small part of the equation that equalled tragedy and could not be responsible for the actions and decisions of others. This, in combination with the fact that he could never really have been expected to ‘get it’, leave a strange sense, almost as though one is still only privy to part of the facts - that history has not been fully related - and in this way it is the reader who lacks the sense of an ending.

This is a tidy little book, although it feels more like the work of a well-ordered creative writing student, than an experienced novelist; everything is terribly neat and carefully plotted, and the devices used are good but often lack subtlety. A good read, but not necessarily what I'd expected.

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Reviews of The Sense of an Ending on Amazon (UK)
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Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

There is a passage in Richard Bradford’s recent biography of Martin Amis, which deals with the letter sent by Barnes to Amis. I thought it might make useful reading in relation to The Sense of an Ending.

Here Christopher Hitchens, close friend of Martin Amis, is discussing the letter Barnes sent to Amis, following the latter’s decision to leave his literary agent, Pat Kavanagh (Barnes’s wife), in favour of Andrew Wylie.

‘…Then there was the notorious letter from Barnes to Martin written shortly after the latter had informed Pat of his decision. The document is in Martin’s possession but copyright means that it is not quotable verbatim without Barnes’s permission. Nevertheless, Martin’s friends commend him unreservedly for abstaining from at least an indication of its content. It affected him greatly and one detects his mortification in Experience but to his credit he didn’t indicate what his erstwhile friend actually wrote.’ According to Hitchens, Martin was left stunned by two passages in particular. In one he stated that Salman [Rushdie], through his association with Wylie, would be killed, but appeared to feel no anguish at the thought. Next he offered Martin hearty congratulations on the break-up of his marriage and the distress caused to Antonia. According to Hitchens, ‘it was beautifully, evilly, crafted, especially the last comment on Martin’s marriage. He didn’t of course compare this explicitly with Martin’s decision to leave Pat but he didn’t need to. Julian is an excellent, compelling stylist. Without actually saying so, he made Martin feel like he had sold his soul to the devil. I mean, it was hardly as though Pat had gone bust, she was still one of the most prestigious, prosperous agents in London. But let’s be blunt, she wasn’t as good as Andrew. Business is business and Julian’s response was made up of pure malice. I’d never seen a letter like that. Martin eventually got back with him, to an extent. But I have not.’

Bradford, Richard (2011), Martin Amis: The Biography, London: Constable, p285.

Heather said...

This is a fantastic review, and I'm so glad you liked the book. I was unaware of the fallout between Barnes and Amis, so thank you for including this note about it. That definitely sheds more light on some aspects of the book and makes it even more interesting.

Anonymous said...

Great review Matthew. I loved this statement: "The idea that memory is an entirely subjective concept, distorted by time and subsequent events, is visited repeatedly, and touches on something very poignant about human psychology and the way we subconsciously doctor our personal history to make it congruent with our own self-perception and subjective reality". It's perfectly put.

I didn't know that about the letter though have vague recollections of the fall-out. So the book could be an apologia? He does play the "remorse" word hard doesn't it.

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

@ Heather

Thanks very much Heather. Yes, I'm a bit surprised that there hasn't been anything in the big reviews about the fallout and letter - it's something that leaped into my mind immediately, and you'd think fans of Barnes would also have read plenty of Amis.

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

@ whisperinggums

Thanks - I know I've already told you, but I really enjoyed the fullness of your review :) Glad you got something from mine too.

I'm still working out how the letter fits in. I don't think I'd rank the book as an apolgia, but maybe more along the lines of an explanation, a reflection of the foolishness of youth, and the motivations behind cruel words.

Judith / Leeswammes said...

A brilliant review, Matthew. You obviously have a great eye for the invisible connections in this book, such as the foreshadowing. For me, it was really useful to discuss this book with a small book group as there were so many things I overlooked.

I didn't know about the falling out of Barnes and Amis, thanks for pointing that out.

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

Thanks Judith - I do my best, but I think this one lends itself it particularly to discussion and picking apart. Hearing others opinions definitely gave me a wider view of the book.

No problem. I guess it's just a handy cross-over of my interests that brought it to mind.

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

Put me in the "I didn't know anything about the letter sent as a result of the falling out between Amis and Barnes" camp! Such a fantastic tie-in that you've made (and, made us curious to learn more, I'm sure).

jamesduganlb said...

Well done. You placing the symbols and pointing out the letter actually is a review of the book that adds to the discussion. I usualy find books by serendipity or friends, and I search for reviews afterwards. I look for what I missed or a point of contention or agreement, and you offer that in this. I appreciate the review.

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

@ Dawn

Thanks very much - hopefully it's something that can get people talking. Sadly, I don't think much more is known about the letter than is mentioned in the quote.

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

@ James Dugan

Kind words indeed. It's often hard to add to the discussion about a book when so much is written online these days, so if I have in this case, then I'm glad. :)

Graham said...

An interesting and insightful review Matthew. I saw that you made your peace with the ending. For me, although I enjoyed The Sense of an Ending, the actual ending was a bit of a problem for me.

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

Thanks for stopping by Graham. Yes, it seems the ending is the part that has proved the most problematic for readers. I completely take on board the criticisms, but for me it worked sufficiently to round off the piece.

Linguamax said...

This is a great review, Matthew, and very thoroughly researched. I forgot about the fallout between Barnes and Amis and it is a rather important fact when you consider the subject matter of this book so thank you for mentioning it. You’ve picked on imagery very well (time/water and broken egg), although you missed one thing – Tony’s conversation in a pub about hand-cut chips – on more example of simple things that Tony just couldn’t ‘get’. I don’t agree with the statement that the build-up leading to the final revelation is contrived or that the book lacks subtlety. I found it very subtle and some observations on age and passing time are very moving, particularly when Tony writes about his ex-wife: “She sees only what’s gone, I see only what stayed the same” (there is a long paragraph when he writes about her and it’s rather touching). I don’t see anything contrived in this story – this is something that could have easily happened. People’s memories tend to be very selective and people usually remember the bad rather than the good, distorting the perception of events, consciously or subconsciously. I really liked this book, including the fact that my opinion of Tony changed half-way through. Initially I was very sympathetic to his character but it all changed after reading his vile letter – so cruel and unnecessarily vicious. As for the ending, there couldn’t be another ending to this story, not one that spelled out all the facts and the truth, as otherwise it would’ve been somebody else’s ending (Adrian’s, Veronica’s her mother’s, etc.).

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

Thanks for a great comment Grace!

I didn't feel too much of the story was contrived, just the small section at the end where Tony realises that there is something to 'get' and then everything becomes unnaturally allusive for me – although this is a very small criticism of a book I really enjoyed.

I definitely feel there was subtlety to the novel when compared to many other author's work, but I somehow found the style a little straight-forward for a novelist of such experience. It's an odd thing and I find it a little difficult to truly express what I felt on this score.

It's interesting that you went off Tony after reading the letter. Whilst it was really quite vile, I put it down to the impetuousity of youth, an ill-judged act of a boy who was hurting. If Tony was irredeemable beyond that point, where does that leave Barnes himself?

Anonymous said...

I didn't know the background of Barnes' letter to Amis. It's interesting that he might have reworked his personal regrets and anguish into a Booker prize winning novel

Matthew Selwyn said...

It is, isn't it? Be fascinating to know exactly what the letter contained, but clearly that's not likely to be disclosed any time soon.

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