I had heightened expectations for Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending following my reading of his 1989 novel History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters. I won’t deny that I was a bit disappointed. I had expected it to contain a bit more of something I am yet unable to name. All what I am certain of is that there is something missing and this feeling of lack only increases along with the number of pages. What I can admit, without any doubt or reluctance, is that the Barnes who had written History has changed so much today. I will not get into the controversy around him winning the Booker Prize in 2011; that is a different argument altogether.
The Sense of an Ending is a story about history and time. One senses a perpetual effort throughout the book to define time or history; the protagonist, Tony, even narrates backwards.The book starts with a memory and before Tony sets out to tell us what really matters, what the story is really about — there are constant moments which he evokes only to assert that they are not part of the story — he takes us back to his childhood. He seems keen on asserting his “incompetence,” if that is an accurate word to use in his case, at understanding or comprehending other people’s behavior and attitude. However, he does accentuate an intellectual tick, especially as an adolescent:intellectual his conversations with his friends, his impression about Adrian, his analyses on situations, which are sometimes “philosophically self-evident, as he keeps saying, his choice of books and so on. However, there is a perpetual feel throughout the book that the three friends live in Adrian’s intellectual shadow, they feed off of him, compete for his attention and approval.
Though their relationship with Adrian is integral to understanding Tony in the first degree, it is not the whole story. The reader finds out that Tony is a confused person, attempting all the while to understand why people treat him the way they do, amid feelings of doubt, remorse, and self-pity. He simply does not want to hurt anyone ever again, as he exclaims toward the end of the book.
I don’t know how accurate it is to claim that the level of depth with which Barnes handles the concepts of time, history, and memory is capricious, in a constant flux, once in depth and at other in complete naivety. There were also instances where I felt it to be rather too cheesy, resembling those highly emotional self-help text books. At some point toward the end of the book, as Tony starts to understand what he has been missing, or made to miss thereof, he wonders, “How often do we tell our own life story? How often we adjust, embellished, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fever are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but –mainly — to ourselves” (95).
In one sense or another, his perpetual state of self-pity irritated me, and at times made me wish him the worst, as if he deserved everything that is happening to him; it was expected that such a character would have such an ending. We anticipated his ending, we felt that sense of ending from the start. Maybe that was Barnes’ intention, though I believe there is a different and deeper side of the story.
“It seemed to me that we ought occasionally to be reminded of instability beneath our feet,” he says. This line definitely caught my attention. It is beautiful! Yet, Tony’s instability gets to the reader as fast as it gets to him.
In school, their history class debated the most accurate definition of history.
‘We could start, perhaps, with the seemingly simple question, What is History? Any thoughts, Webster?’
‘History is the lies of the victors,’ I replied, a little too quickly.
‘Yes, I was rather afraid you’d say that. Well, as long as you remember that it is also the self-delusions of the defeated. Simpson?’
Colin was more prepared than me. ‘History is a raw onion sandwich, sir.’
‘For what reason?’
‘It just appears, sir. It burps. We’ve seen it again and again this year. Same old story, same old oscillation between tyranny and rebellion, war and peace, prosperity and impoverishment.’
‘Rather a lot for a sandwich to contain, wouldn’t you say?’
‘‘History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.’’ (17)
As the story unfolds and the older Tony starts narrating his present in view of his past, rather than his past, his view of history changes. “I survived,” he writes. “He survived to tell the tale’ — that’s what people say, don’t they? History isn’t the lies of the victors, as I once glibly assured Old Joe Hunt; I know that now. It’s more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated” (56).
Then still further into the novel, Tony gives a more personal perception of what constitutes history and time:
Perhaps I just feel safer with the history that’s been more or less agreed upon. Or perhaps it’s that same paradox again: the history that happens underneath our noses ought to be the clearest, and yet it’s the most deliquescent. We live in time, it bounds us and defines us, and time is supposed to measure history, isn’t it? But if we can’t understand time, can’t grasp its mysteries of pace and progress, what chance do we have with history — even our own small, personal, largely undocumented piece of it? (60)
However, it seems rather ironic, or maybe predictable, that Tony would reach a conclusion such as the one he proclaims at the end of the book. He says, “There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest” (150). Should I take this statement sarcastically? A huge part of me wants to consider this conclusion a cynical and witty one, but there is a tiny voice battling that.
I think it is worth mentioning, that Tony’s instability which the reader feels and touches is demonstrated, not only in the events taking place or his internal monologues or even his own actions and their consequence, in other words, not only through the plot, but also through the form of the narrative itself. From page 56 onward (part two of the book), I felt that the narrative became more broken, more fragmented than it was before. The fragments were shorter and jumped from one place to another in a different manner than they did in the first part.
Tony’s remembrances and the way he invokes his memories in a mixture of nostalgia and defeatism. He seems to be berating himself and the lifestyle he has led.
I remember a period in late adolescence when my mind would make itself drunk with images of adventurousness. This is how it will be when i grow up. I shall go there, do this, discover that, love her, and then her and her and her. I shall live as people in novels live and have lived. Which ones I was not sure, only that passion and danger, ecstasy and despair (but then more ecstasy) would be in attendance. However … who said that thing about ‘littleness of life that art exaggerated’? There was a moment in my late twenties when I admitted that my adventurousness had long since petered out. I would never do those things adolescence had dreamt about. Instead, I mowed my lawn, I took holidays, I had my life.
But time … how time first grounds us and then confound 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. (93)
The second kind of memory present is tinged with nostalgia and a constant doubt that memories are truly memories rather than a recreation of a nostalgic and emotional subject. Tony exclaims, “We live with such easy assumptions, don’t we? For instance, that memory equals events plus time” (63).