Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Julian Barnes's The Sense of an Ending

For its size, this short novel provoked a surprisingly wide variety of strong responses from the seven of us who met to discuss it. While a couple really enjoyed it, quite a few of us found it either mundane, over intellectual or downright annoying, with one of us wanting to dropkick the characters off the page! We were nearly all startled by the book's ending where we were left wondering what the heck had actually happened. For some this was further annoyance while others had enjoyed rereading from the beginning looking for the clues.

The feeling that we must have all read different books made more sense as we discussed the novel further. One of the main themes is foreshadowed even before we first meet Tony as a schoolboy along with the intellectually precocious Adrian who joins his group of friends. Our narratives about ourselves and our lives change with each telling so that our memories become a construct. This makes Tony an unreliable narrator and he has forgotten and omits crucially important things from the story, such as a viciously cruel letter he wrote to Adrian not long before his suicide. Was his university girlfriend Veronica really the heartless snob he remembered, or an insecure, inhibited girl, undermined by her own mother, who had relaxed enough with him one evening to be able to dance for the first time in her life? No wonder we were confused.

We found much to admire. The novel is beautifully plotted, compactly and cleverly written so that every idea expressed is there for a purpose, even the poem about barn owls and mention of the theme from "A man and a woman". It was noted that the author is skilled at "bringing together threads using small moments". The book is full of pithily worded  and profound ideas and we enjoyed reading out several memorable quotes which I can't reproduce here as my copy had to go back to the Library. Schooldays and the pretentions and insouciance of youth were beautifully evoked, some of the later reflections on ageing all too recognisably true. We noted that Julian Barnes is about our age and thought this helped us to relate to Tony. We wondered how much wiser Tony really was at the end of the book.

We tried to work out exactly what had happened and why. Why had Veronica's mother wanted to will Adrian's diary to Tony? Why did she even have his diary? Why did Adrian kill himself? Some of us felt that no matter how carefully we reread the book we might never be sure. Adrian had remarked with typical precosity “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”  By the end of the book it seems that Tony's memories are seriously flawed, maybe even the opposite of the truth, and we never get to see Adrian's diary (except for a tantalising fragment) to evaluate its adequacy as documentation. But what exactly was the "history" here? Or is that the point? You could easily talk about this book all night.

 "Instead of telling Tony that he'd never "get it", why couldn't Veronica just explain!" was the exasperated exclamation as we moved on to our well-earned and delicious supper.

I got too involved to take proper notes, but this is my (naturally unreliable) memory of the discussion. Please add corrections or whole important points that I've omitted etc.