29 Jan 2012

Julian Barnes: The Sense of an Ending

I have only read a couple of Julian Barnes' books to date, both of them containing short stories or essays, but I have just finished his brilliant novel entitled The Sense of an Ending, which won the 2011 Man Booker prize, and I must say I was very impressed and am now impatient to read some more of his work.

This is a very short novel which comprises barely 150 pages in the above edition from Jonathan Cape. But we are not about to confuse quantity with quality, are we?

Barnes' writing is perfectly matched to the suject: a gradually unfolding introspection on memory, the construction of self with its illusions and deceits, and the way life (even an apparently banal one) holds surprises in some of its nooks and crannies hidden by the filters that selective memory places between present and past. He writes with an apparent honesty in the first person, making us feel that he is the main character whilst keeping the necessary distance through this character's own constant self-depreciation. The style is pure and subtle, allowing irony to mix constantly into feelings that are subdued yet latent. Barnes' acute observation of human behaviour and memories of his own experience become indistinguishable: the raw material constantly shifting, allowing events to take unexpected turns and his characters come under different lights as they do so.

I know that most book reviews usually begin by resuming the story of the work in question. I am not interested in doing this as I find it either tiresome or unnecessary. I rarely buy a book on account of a of its story, and why spoil the reader's pleasure in discovering this anyway? Better to concentrate on the formal aspects that make the thing work or not, the style of the writing,  the interest raised by the characters, and the emotions or thoughts that the work manages to induce in the reader (ie me). Books covers tend to give the résumé of the story anyway, but I always find this quite unsatisfactory.

Barnes divides this book into two parts: the first one dealing with the main character's life as a schoolboy and an undergraduate; the second with a section of his life shortly after retirement. Some 40 years separate the two periods therefore. And, as I said, the book is largely about memory, the construction of memory, its deficiencies and the ambiguities that these can produce as life takes its course. Barnes is acutely observant of the mores of those who grew up in the 1950's and 1960's in Britain and went to university. This is also his background (and was, to an extent, also mine). But we are not involved in autobiography here. His characters are what he wants them to be for the story. The rest forms the background, which he knows well enough to use it to its full.

The apparent frankness of the questioning that arises in the dialogues and the main character's recital of events are sometimes an illusion, hiding things that will only be revealed at the end. So the ambiguity of peoples' construction of their persona and their vision of those around them is shown for what it is : self-delusion and a form of protectionism that can only lead to misunderstanding, even if it does protect, momentarily, a small pool of tranquility.

Barnes is a master of this thin line between confort and acute pain. The Sense of an Ending is both refined and without pity.

Read on...

1 comment:

  1. THE SENSE OF AN ENDING is already a bestseller on both sides of the pond, so probably doesn't need much further commentary. I will say simply that it is a heartbreakingly eloquent story of what it means to grow older, filled with poignancy, wisdom and regret - as well as a fair measure of humor. This last element shows up here and there, appropriately leavening what is a very serious work. Here's an example, in which the British narrator, a sixty-ish Tony Webster, describes his take on the sixties and why he didn't manage to lose his virginity quite as early as he might have wished -

    "But wasn't this the sixties? Yes, but only for some people, only in certain parts of the country."

    This made me chuckle in uneasy recognition, since I had the same experience - and excuses - on the other side of the pond.

    As for quiet wisdom, here's a thoughtful passage - "Sometimes I think the purpose of life is to reconcile us to its eventual loss by wearing us down, by proving, however long it takes, that life isn't all it's cracked up to be."

    A story of youth, middle age, disappointment, compromise and aging and death - Barnes gets it all in there in a very brief novel, with a remarkably surprising and unexpected ending that will have you paging back through the book looking for clues you may have missed. But - for me - it all worked remarkably well. Bravo, Mr Barnes. Your soaring success with this one is well-deserved.