Julian Barnes (2011) The Sense of an Ending Knopf Doubleday, New York; 176 pp.; ISBN 978-0-307-95712-2
Each of us has a story of our life that we keep in our mind. We recite bits of it to ourselves and to others, sometimes making modifications along the way, but it is the repetition that gives us a sense of integrity and cohesion, a comforting feeling that from the earliest memories until now there is a single person experiencing a life that makes sense. It might not be entirely likeable – we have all known disappointments and regrets, done things we should not have – but a story to tell ourselves and others brings a degree of contentment, no matter what course our lives have taken.
This two-chapter novel is narrated by Tony Webster, now aged and in retirement. In the first chapter we are treated to his story about the events of his life. It’s not been a very exciting one: university in Bristol, a career as an arts administrator, a divorce and a daughter he sees on odd occasions. Bits of this will resonate with most readers, though it says a lot about the Oxford-educated Julian Barnes that studying in Bristol and working in arts administration seem for him to be the height of mediocrity. Tony Webster certainly has regrets, but is comfortable with the narrative that sits inside his head.
Though he has lived a long life, much of the focus in Tony’s story is on his days at school and the early years of university. He recalls discussions with teachers about the nature of history and how well we can really know the past, and we read how he slowly drifted apart from his close friends of those times. A boy named Robson committed suicide after getting a girl pregnant, but otherwise there was little drama in the lives of Tony and his friends. Or so the story went.
The second part of the book sees Tony having to re-examine and re-work his life story. The mother of Veronica Ford (an ex-girlfriend) leaves Tony some money and the diary of Adrian Finn, a former schoolmate whom Tony had looked up to as an intellectual and rigorous thinker. However, Veronica refuses to hand over the diary and this causes Tony to seek her out, reviving painful memories of their past relationship. Tony knows that Veronica and Adrian became lovers, and goes on to assume that they married. He is also aware that Adrian committed suicide, and interprets this as a noble decision on Adrian’s part. Tony and Veronica meet on several occasions, but each time new puzzles about the past arise. Tony increasingly finds himself having to edit large parts of his internal story and to question his assumptions.
In the end, Tony realises that many of the things that were safely tucked into his view of the past were illusory or utterly wrong-headed. And a callow and cruel letter, almost forgotten by Tony, that he sent to Adrian and Veronica adds a new dimension of remorse to his life story. I say ‘in the end’, but the events in the second part of this novel make it clear that the internal narratives of our personal histories are rickety at best. It only takes a chance event to force us into some wholesale re-writing and a search for new justifications and excuses in order to preserve our sense of self.
This novel won Julian Barnes the Man Booker prize in 2011, but don’t let that put you off. It is a superbly written piece drenched in the nostalgia that we all feel as we get older. It is also carefully observant of the follies and foibles that mock us mercilessly no matter how old we are. As a teacher says early in the novel, history is not only written by the victors, but also includes the tales of the vanquished. Tony Webster is no victor, and his gaze on the past tells us much about the nature of our lives.