Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes: A review

This slim book by Julian Barnes which won the Man Booker Prize last year was an absolutely mesmerizing read for me. I could have read it in a single sitting, had I not had other things to do. The story of Tony Webster, a man in his 60s looking back over his life and meditating on the mysteries of how memory works and how time changes memory, hit me where I live.

Tony had passed through his early life in something of a sleepwalk. He never thought deeply about what he was doing or what was going on around him. He never understood, never bothered to try to understand the effect that his words and actions might have on others. He was simply oblivious to everything except his own senses.

As a young man, he had a coterie of three friends and a girlfriend but, eventually, the girlfriend broke up with him and as he grew older, he drifted away from all of them, finally losing contact. He went to America for a while, then, returning to England, he met Margaret and they married, had a daughter named Susie, and created a stable life together.

After several years of marriage, Margaret met another man who she found more exciting and she divorced Tony, but they continued to maintain an amicable relationship. Now in their retirement years, they are friends who lunch together and Susie is a friendly, if somewhat distant, part of Tony's life, along with her husband and their children.

And then, suddenly, unexpectedly, that long-ago, almost forgotten past comes surging back into Tony's life, overwhelming all the barriers he has built around himself and he meditates about how time changes one's perspectives:
But time...how time first grounds us and then confounds us. We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imagined we were being responsible but were only being cowardly. What we called realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things rather than facing them. Time...give us enough time and our best-supported decisions will seem wobbly, our certainties whimsical.
It's as if he were reading my heart and mind. The entire book, brief though it is, is dense with meditations like that. Most of the action is within Anthony Webster's mind as he looks back over his life and struggles to make sense of it all. Where did he go wrong? Where did he misunderstand? What could he have done to make things turn out differently for himself and for those who were close to him? In fact, how much responsibility does he bear for the death of one friend and the ruined relationships of others? As a young man, he had only considered his own hurt pride and feelings as he lashed out at others. How self-centered that young man now appears to the Tony in his 60s.
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.
Again, it is as if he were looking into my soul and teasing out the regrets that live in the shadows there. 

The philosophical ideas contained in this book are at once disturbing, suspenseful, sometimes funny, always graceful and brutally honest, and, in the end, very life-affirming. It is a complicated book, as all lives are complicated. I do not usually reread books over and over again, but this is one that I think that I will. It is so full of ideas and insights that I am sure that I missed much the first time around and I want to know them. 

Here is one more meditation by Tony that struck deeply with me:
Does character develop over time? In novels, of course it does; otherwise there wouldn't be much of a story. But in life? I sometimes wonder. Our attitudes and opinions change, we develop new habits and eccentricities; but that's something different, more like decoration. Perhaps character resembles intelligence, except that character peaks a little later: between twenty and thirty, say. And after that, we're just stuck with what we've got. We're on our own. If so, that would explain a lot of lives, wouldn't it? And also - if this isn't too grand a word - our tragedy.
Wonderful writing.

I confess I had not read Julian Barnes before, although, of course, I knew of him and his reputation. I will definitely now be seeking out more of his work. Someone who understands me so well must have more wisdom to impart, more guidance to give. Not only did his book win the Man Booker Prize for 2011, it wins the Dorothy Borders Prize for 2012 for the most insightful and influential book I have read all year - and I have read some very good ones.

8 comments:

  1. This book had an effect on me too. How about linking this in to Books You Loved? Have a great week!

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    1. Okay, Carole. Thanks for dropping by.

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    2. Great that you linked in, thanks. have a good one

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  2. Just a note to let you know that your link in to Books You Loved: October was showcased in the November edition which has just posted. Would love to see another contribution from you this month! This is the link - Books You Loved November Edition

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    1. Thanks, Carole. I'll definitely find another recently read book to link with your meme.

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  3. This was my first Barnes novel, and I absolutely loved it. Perhaps it was more of a lifetime achievement award but, if that's the case, them that means I have more excellent reading ahead of me. I do think my contemplative end-of-the -year mood enhanced my overall enjoyment. It sounds like I'm in for a treat when I get to Maxwell's novel... added that one to my list after your review.

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  4. First thing first - "The Sense of an Ending" is the Man Booker Prize winner of 2011. Speaks a lot for itself.

    "Tony Webster and his clique first met Adrian Finn at school. Sex-hungry and book-hungry, they would navigate the girl-less sixth form together, trading in affectations, in-jokes, rumor and wit. Maybe Adrian was a little more serious than the others, certainly more intelligent, but they all swore to stay friends for life. Now Tony is in middle age. He's had a career and a single marriage, a calm divorce. He's certainly never tried to hurt anybody. Memory, though, is imperfect. It can always throw up surprises, as a lawyer's letter is about to prove."

    A tragedy, a short book of 150 pages - It is the story of a seemingly ordinary man who, when revisiting his past in later life, discovers that the memories he holds are less than perfect.
    Captivating from the first paragraph itself, it touches life, friendship, love, history, memories and suicide.

    The book is divided in two parts.
    Part one is about youth, college, education, sex. Part one is about melancholic, deep thinker Adrian Finn.

    "That's one of the central problem of history, isn't it sir ? The question of subjective versus objective interpretation, the fact that we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us.'
    There was silence. And no, he wasn't taking the piss, not in the slightest.
    Old Joe Hunt looked at his watch and smiled, 'Finn, I retire in five years. And I shall be happy to give you a reference if you care to take over.' And he wasn't taking the piss either."

    Life takes a new turn in Tony's life after Adrian committed suicide.

    "Eventually, I asked, 'How did he do it?'
    'He cut his wrist in the bath.'
    'Christ. That's sort of ... Greek, isn't it? Or was that hemlock?'
    'More the exemplary Roman, I'd say. Opening the vein. And he knew how to do it. You have to cut diagonally. If you cut straight across, you can lose consciousness and the wound closes up and you've bogged it.'
    'Perhaps you just drown instead.'
    'Even so - second prize,' said Alex. 'Adrian would have wanted first.' He was right: first class degree, first class suicide."

    Part two takes a time skip of 40 years.
    Now Tony is old, Adrian is long gone when he gets a letter of a lawyer which will change his life and his belief-system upside down. It is a mad chase of the diary of his long dead friend. The questions unravels more questions and shows how imperfect memories are. How an act of passion, truly justified in the current setting cause the butterfly effect and destroys literally every major character's life in the novel.

    The ending is marvelously crafted, albeit a bit hurried. To sink the fact and recollect the missing clues one need to read the book _again_.

    Read it. And read it again. You won't be disappointed.

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    1. I couldn't agree more that it is a fantastic work of literature, rich in meaning on many levels.

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