The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes

23 January 2012
Chapter 1…
…which is just over a third of the novel. Julian Barnes has played a trick on us: after spending almost all this section on about six or seven years in the life of Tony Webster, the narrator – from about age 16 to about age 23 – he’s seen off the rest of the autobiography in a couple of pages. So, he seems to be challenging us, I bet you don’t call that a sense of an ending. From first job via unremarkable and eventually doomed marriage to retirement and voluntary work in a hospital? Is that it?

Of course that’s not it, although I don’t know what ‘it’ is yet, because I haven’t looked at the rest of the novel. One of the things that it involves is the problematic nature of the narrator’s partial memories and partial versions of events. This isn’t a new idea. In fact, the partiality of memories as ascribed to characters approaching old age is the stuff of a huge amount of fiction by ageing novelists: Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, E L Doctorow, David Lodge… and these are just the ones that have come my way in the past couple of years. So Barnes has got to do something new. This hectic gallop through 40 years, as though to insist how unremarkable this ordinary life seems to the narrator, is one new thing, as are the hints he keeps dropping about the girlfriend he had at university. That relationship was over before the end of the second year, but we know he hasn’t finished with her yet. She later became involved, through what must have been a complicated route, with the narrator’s most interesting friend – the one who killed himself, possibly as a result. I’ll get back to that.

In other words, we don’t know what’s important yet. Maybe the narrator doesn’t know, or maybe he’s biding his time before telling us. Of course, even if he does tell, it will be conditional kind of revelation. He won’t even know if what he’s saying has any real truth in it at all.

The story so far, briefly. Three friends at school are joined by Adrian the new kid. He is almost impossibly thoughtful and erudite for a 16-year-old, but the narrator is always telling us that all he can do is give us his best shot at reporting what people said, so it’s ok. These are History Boys, and the teachers stretch them and, whenever Adrian speaks, are stretched in return. They go to different universities – Adrian, unsurprisingly, to Cambridge – and are never so close again. Tony meets Veronica, who is never straightforward with him. He can never quite decide whether she is a typical mid-1960s middle class girl, or rather unstraightforward and manipulative. In his late middle age he suspects the latter, but how should he know?

They break up and, some months later, Adrian writes to ask whether Tony feels ok about the fact that he is now going out with her. (Her brother is at Cambridge, but there is no other connection. Except she met him once when Tony showed her off to his friends.) Tony writes a sarcastic reply, wonders whether Veronica was behind the writing of the letter… and so on. Fast-forward, via a 2:1 degree and six months travelling in the USA, where he has the only uncomplicated relationship with a woman he seems ever to have had, but frets about whether it was, well, too uncomplicated. On his return he discovers that Adrian has committed suicide. According to the letter he has written, this is a philosophical statement. This is plausible in the light of discussions we’ve heard earlier – a less interesting boy killed himself in the sixth form – and… and what? Barnes has set out his stall. Is Adrian’s life any more of a waste than Tony’s? This is a question Tony himself asks, and he decides that he is glad he carried on living, unlike the man his mother considered ‘too clever’.

Where is Barnes going with this? A meditation on mortality and the value of life? I hope not.

24 January
Chapter 2, first half…
…to where Tony re-reads, and reacts to, the letter he wrote 40 years ago. Barnes – or Tony, or both – has opted for a series of meditations on the value of an ordinary life, interspersed with enough new plot elements to keep it ticking over as a novel. Plot: Tony discovers that Veronica’s mother has bequeathed him £500 in her will – and that he is to become the owner of something that Adrian wrote before his death. The mystery is piquant enough, and the dissatisfactions of this man who feels he hasn’t lived his life as fully as he might have done are interesting enough, to keep things going. And we find out why Veronica is constantly in the frame in Chapter 1: she has a key role in this chapter, because she has Adrian’s diary and she’s very difficult to get hold of….

We get an anecdote about a dogged exchange of letters to a bank or insurance company – I’ve forgotten the details already – which is only there to show how, well, dogged he is. He finally gets her email address from her brother – which leads to a riff on the style of the brother’s emails, to do with the unreliability of written evidence: what is that jauntiness revealing? Or hiding? This echoes that classroom debate the History Boys – i.e. Adrian – had with one of the teachers about how we can possibly piece together a life from the fragments that come down to us. What we didn’t recognise at the time – it happens only a few pages in – is that the rest of the novel is about that very thing. And, when he finally gets in touch with Veronica, we get some documentation. Eventually.

First he gets a photocopy of a single page in Adrian’s handwriting. This being a novel, Barnes is able to play a little game: the page ends with a half-sentence – ‘So, for instance, if Tony’ – that sets off another whole riff, this time about roads not taken, the life not led. If Tony what? That would be telling. Later, after Veronica has made him meet somewhere obscure to hand over the diary, she tells him he can’t have it, ever: she’s burnt it, and tells him nobody has the right to read such a thing. Maybe she is as much of a controlling tease as he alleges, after all. She gives him a different document instead, under wraps. And when he eventually opens the envelope it’s a photocopy of something else: the letter he sent to Adrian and her all those years ago. We get it verbatim, and… and what? We get another meditation, this time on whether the person we used to be, the one who could write such a mean-spirited, angry, vindictive-sounding letter is the same person that we are now.

(Sigh.) How interesting is it? Are the meditations, this endless self-examination, of any more value than what you or I might talk about with friends in the pub? Do we care about this character who seems to be coming round to the idea that his life might be of no value? And what’s with the new plot elements, which seem to be turning the book into a thriller?

I’ll let you know how it goes.

7 February
Chapter 2, to the end
Time passes. I finished reading two weeks ago, but I didn’t write about it then. So I’ve re-read this final section and… what? (This is a form of words that Barnes uses several times in the novel: ‘and… what?’ It signifies Tony’s uncertainty, his way of holding up for examination some turn of events he hasn’t quite sorted out in his mind yet. I know how he feels.) I’m wondering whether this novel is greater than the sum of its parts. Every page has almost uncannily recognisable observations about ordinary lives, from the embarrassments of adolescent shyness with girls to the grudging acceptance of being ‘average’ on reaching middle age, and I like them. Hang on, I want to try something: I’ll pick a page at random and see what the observation is.

First attempt: it’s an observation about parking restrictions in suburban London, probably ‘to discourage commuters from… dumping their cars for the day, and carrying on by Tube.’ Ok, familiar but dull. Another? ‘I began re-examining my younger self, as far as it’s possible to do so. Of course I’d been crass and naïve – we all are; but I knew not to exaggerate these characteristics, because that’s just a way of praising yourself for what you have become.’ Familiar, definitely, with that faintly obsessive twist that you get with this character. One more random page: ‘The less time there remains in your life, the less you want to waste it.’ Definitely.

This is the novel’s attraction for me, the one that kept me going. Here’s a character who is one of us, who lives in this country at this point in the century, and reflects back to us what it’s like to live here. Sometimes it’s a bit predictable, like an edition of Grumpy Old Men on television. But at other times it’s easy to be persuaded that these thoughts are our own, but better expressed. And it’s a key element in those ‘parts’ that I mentioned, the ones I’m not sure this book is greater than the sum of. My uncertainty has to do with the mystery plot Barnes foists on us, and the relationships that are available in the world he has created. I don’t believe any of it, even with disbelief suspended as far as I can manage.

The plot, in a paragraph. Veronica, the inveterate tease, teases Tony with a teasing page from a diary, now burnt, that mentions him. She also drops hints about why his letter 40 years ago remains disgusting, that ‘you still don’t get it.’ On the diary page there’s a pseudo-mathematical formula containing ‘a’s and ‘b’s and other letters, and this turns out to be a clue. Later, she drives like the unbalanced control-freak she is to show Tony a group of adults in a London street who have special needs, and who know her. But… ‘you still don’t get it, do you?’ Give me strength. He starts to revisit the street and the pub the special needs people very occasionally go to, and realises one of them is clearly Adrian’s son. Therefore… he must be Veronica’s son as well! (He hasn’t been listening to the clues, obviously: everybody in the group calls her Mary, and nobody calls her Mum.) But, after an almost accidental final meeting, their carer tells him Veronica isn’t the mother, she’s the sister. The mother was her mother, and the damaged child she had with Adrian is the result of a pregnancy late in life. Tony has discovered that Adrian, the acme of right behaviour, has fucked up big time. This reader thinks, is that all?

And what about the relationships? Tony, despite being very sociable in his schooldays, only ever mentions one relationship he’s made since the split with Veronica: Margaret, his ex-wife. No other friendships, no other anything, apart from that fling in America. (But that was before Adrian’s suicide.) Either Barnes doesn’t know about middle-class friendship patterns – nobody, but nobody has zero friends – or he’s trying to persuade us that, somehow, the terrible letter he wrote and the other devastating things that happened afterwards have somehow led to a kind of cauterisation: he can’t do relationships any more. He’s obsessive to the point of OCD – he’s told us how tidy he’s become – and, basically, all this self-examination is therefore explicable. At some subconscious level he’s apparently trying to clean up the mess of his earlier life.

Believe that if you want to. And believe that Veronica, manipulative cow that she was at university, has had 40 years to become bitter to the point of vindictiveness. Her behaviour is half-crazed – but, Barnes wants to persuade us, it would be, wouldn’t it? Answer: Nah, sorry. Both she and Tony, in the damaged middle-aged incarnations we’re presented with, are the products not of those terrible events in the late 1960s, but of Barnes’ need to have the revelations unfold piece by piece. The quirks of their personalities are necessary for the plot to work. It doesn’t work for me.

It’s a pity, because Tony’s riffs on ageing and memory are full of genuine insights. What did I say earlier? They are like thoughts we might have ourselves, but better expressed – and I’m absolutely convinced that these were the starting-point for Julian Barnes. He is Tony’s age and, like the other authors I mentioned before, he has things he wants to share with us about time, memory and the process of growing old. But he’s a novelist, and publishers demand more than a series of pensées and apercus. There have to be characters, relationships and, lord save us, plot. For me, all these do is get in the way.

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