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the sense of an ending

16 may 2012

The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes's Man Booker Prize winning book, is a philosophical novella about memory and suicide, if you like such things. I don't mind them when they're told from an unusual angle and have interesting characters. Tony Webster, the narrator of The Sense of an Ending, is as non-unusual as narrators of English novels get: an aging man who's been to university, worked in a white-collar career irrelevant to the plot, been married, had a child, divorced – and grown enamored of the sound of his own voice. I suppose the main thing that makes him an interesting character is how uninteresting he is.

How to give a bland character depth? The Sense of an Ending is like a technical experiment in this problem. Barnes gives Tony Webster complications by giving him an all-too-fallible memory. Not in the sense that Tony is on the road to Alzheimer's; he's totally "there." But in the sense that stuff happens in the course of a lifetime, and we can't keep all of it front and center all the time. When young, we are experts on our own pasts.

Later there is more uncertainty, more overlapping, more backtracking, more false memories. Back then, you can remember your short life in its entirety. Later, the memory becomes a thing of shreds and patches. (114-115)
Late in his life, Tony Webster receives an enigmatic bequest from a woman he barely knew. Why? Much of the context for the bequeather's motivations is and will be unknown to Tony. But one key precipitating factor was a selfish action he took nearly forty years before – and has now completely forgotten.

Of course, one could interpret Tony's forgetfulness as evasion, even self-justification. He might be Mr. Memory and yet fall into the grab-bag category of "unreliable narrator" (a term propounded as if any narrators were ever reliable). Yet he has no problem telling us about his past miserable behavior once his memory is jogged. So it seems that his case is less rhetorical than truly philosophical. "I have come upon this place / By lost ways," said the poet Archibald MacLeish. It may be that we can never fully account for how we got to be who we are, even if we were fully conscious for much of the becoming. Barnes's Tony puts it this way: "As the witnesses to your life diminish, there is less corroboration, and therefore less certainty, as to what you are or have been" (65).

The Sense of an Ending belongs in a miniature recent genre populated by Ian MacEwan's On Chesil Beach and Graham Swift's Tomorrow: short novels, inhabited by secrets, haunted by fallible memory, and dependent for their plot twists on the incompleteness of our knowledge of one another. Of the three, I still prefer On Chesil Beach, but The Sense of an Ending has its moments, especially when it juxtaposes its narrator's rather sullen pedantry against the faulty data he has on his own life.

Literary prizes are curious things. I often disagree with them, yet remain fascinated by them; they provide both a rough canon of any field in which they're awarded, and a retrospective guide to tastes that don't always correspond with the judgment of posterity. Those that are awarded annually (like the Newbery Medal) are easy to second-guess, particularly as time passes and we have unlimited scope for reflection, compared to the few months that the juries could spend deciding a winner. One particular weakness of annual awards is that they are often given de facto for a lifetime of work. The Academy Awards are notorious for this dynamic, but the Newbery Medal and Pulitzer Prize are also prey to it, and so is the Man Booker Prize. After making three previous shortlists, the author of Flaubert's Parrot, England, England, and Arthur & George had never won the Booker – and his best book, A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, had failed even to make the shortlist. Barnes was due: but that may not mean that The Sense of an Ending will ultimately figure among his more significant works, or among the best novels of 2011. It's still well worth reading, and I predict it will be well worth reading years from now, for its elegant treatment of a key problem of the art of fiction.

Barnes, Julian. The Sense of an Ending. New York: Knopf [Random House], 2011.