The (Non)Sense of an Ending

senseofanendingOkay, so now I’ve finally read Julian Barnes’ Booker-winning novella, The Sense of an Ending, and understand what the fuss is all about. I should state upfront that I am not at all fond of stories that heavily anticipate a climactic ending with full closure and disclosure, only to leave the reader setting down the book and saying: ‘Eh? What happened there?’ So this leaves me in a quandary, as I am a big Barnes fan, and think of him generally as an exciting and unique author. Which of course he is. But I do think he got the Booker for this one in the way too many actors get Oscars, which is to say, they are generally deserving but have been pipped at the post by other people on other occasions.

Given that the only thing really worth talking about in this novella is the ending, I’m going to talk about it, but I promise to post large spoiler alerts when we get there. Essentially this is a tale of remorse and the vagaries of memory. Our narrator is a man in late middle age, looking back on his adolescence and the first serious love affair of his life. Whilst the first physical affair is with Veronica, his first true love is for Adrian, the serious, intelligent boy who joined his sixth form and took it by storm with the force of his mind. I would dearly love to give this book to all Mr Litlove’s friends from schooldays as I’m pretty sure they would recognise a perfect portrait of late male adolescence, all wit and bluster and camaraderie as a thin carapace over intolerable vulnerability. Anyway, the friends leave school and at university, Tony becomes involved with the prickly and difficult Veronica, enduring a wincingly awful weekend with her folks and of course, nowhere near enough sexual activity for his liking before they break up. It’s not long before Veronica is dating Adrian, and Tony has understandably mixed feelings about this. Decades pass, life happens (although not much life in Tony’s case), and then, divorced, alone but not discontent, he receives a strange letter from a solicitor telling him he is the recipient of a cash bequest from Veronica’s recently departed mother, and Adrian’s diary, which Veronica now has and proves distinctly unwilling to give him. Trying to get hold of this diary, Tony is forced to confront his past and go over the events from this distant time. It’s clear he’s involved, and not in a good way, with the tragedies that date from this era  – but how?

So, the story signals to us loud and clear that Tony is an unreliable narrator. He tells us repeatedly that his memory of certain events is hazy. He wasn’t sure what was going on half the time he was living it, so he certainly isn’t about to be clear now. The whole point of the novella is to show the reader that we can never be absolutely sure of the histories we tell ourselves, public or private, summed up in a quote that Adrian used to their history master, and which Tony repeats for emphasis:

History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.’

Okay, so the stage is set for us to be frustrated in the production of a reliable history, even as we may strain after one. However, what we also need to be clear about is that we know narrators are unreliable only because the story shows us they are. This is a very important point, or else we sink into narratorial anarchy, in which absolutely anything could be happening and the narrator is simply neglecting or refusing to tell the reader about it. That simply wouldn’t be fair, now, would it? No. So narrators are unreliable only to the extent that their unreliability is proved by what other people say or do, by the clues we are given, and by the events that unfold in consequence. I say all of this because there are so many wildly speculative opinions about what might have happened in this story that my main urge on reading about them was to quash a few with common sense.

Huge spoiler alert.

What we can be sure did NOT happen:

1. The child is Tony and Veronica’s. There is only one chronicled properly sexual encounter between the two of them and it is highly detailed. We know perhaps more than we would like to know about the protection used and its evident success. The main frustration Tony has with Veronica is that she’s not, ahem, succumbing to him more often, and so given that this is his main interest in the relationship, he’d tell us about other times if they existed. It’s a big thing for both of them that they only make love once.

2. The child is Tony’s with Veronica’s mother, Sarah. The only evidence evoked for this seems to be the description of two unrelated events, in which Sarah throws an imperfect fried egg in the bin, and Tony’s sperm is washed down the sink in his bedroom. The egg/sperm link seems hopelessly tenuous to me, and besides, both of these instances are gestures of waste, not creation. This reading assumes a huge omission on the part of Tony’s narrative, and this is not at all in keeping with the memory issues that the narrative presents. Tony tells us that when his emotions with regard to Veronica are coloured by their unpleasant break-up, he only remembers bad things about her. When he feels more fondly towards her, he recalls some nicer aspects of their relationship, like the time they danced together in his room. But the dancing is by no means a significant event – it is without consequence. Tony’s memory, like everyone’s, is affected by his present emotions, and so he may interpret differently according to the occasion. But he’s not leaving great big chunks of narrative out, like having sex with his girlfriend’s mother!

3. Veronica and Mary are two different people. I sort of like this because it’s so bonkers, but it is ridiculous. The only justification for this is Tony’s comment on seeing Veronica  ‘She somehow managed to look – to my eye – both twentyish and sixtyish at the same time’. That’s the palimpsest effect of memory, where traces of earlier times are just visible beneath the older surface, nothing more.

4. I believe I read hints of incest going about. I can’t even begin to deal with this it’s so wrong. Veronica’s family is portrayed as a perfectly ordinary, average family, and Tony suffers the way any teenage Romeo would, from the brother’s indifference, the father’s awkward joshing and the mother’s misplaced sympathy. Tony’s experience is intended to evoke Everyman’s – his is a common fate, not an extraordinary one. That is, after all, the whole problem with his life – nothing has ever really happened in it.

So what DID happen?

I refer you back to the quotation about history that gets repeated for good measure to make sure it’s hammered into the reader’s brain. We cannot know for sure. The documents are inadequate, the memories imperfect. We can’t solve this story like a puzzle because we’ve been warned from the start that we’ll be lacking the right pieces. But Tony does go through a sort of rite of passage, in which he realises that people’s emotional lives are far more complicated than he wanted to think. He is forced to recognise his callousness and lack of emotional literacy across his life; he knows he’s avoided as much real feeling as he possibly could in the name of self-protection. And he is obliged to accept the inconvenient truth that his baser actions, which he would like to forget and cover up, did have consequences. But Tony’s problem has always been that he interprets through his emotions – he’s too locked into himself to have any wiser perspective. So the guilt he feels by the end is reflected in all sorts of mild events – Veronica’s anger with him, the child-man’s dislike of him, Margaret’s abandonment of him. They could all be explained by reference to what’s actually happening in the lives of those people; Tony might still be as irrelevant as fate has made him thus far. But it’s only the sense of his own guilt that gives him a right to any centrality in the story he tells.

Sure, the story invites speculation, but it also frustrates it, too. Because stories are always that – a shapely construct that knits together events as if they were causally related. Perhaps they are, perhaps they are not. It’s the only awkward and insufficient truth that Julian Barnes allows us.

Finally, if you would like to see some of those speculations about the ending, hop over to the hugely talented Andrew Blackman’s blog post on The Sense of an Ending – Explained which is also a masterclass in how to conduct a lengthy, varied and extremely good-natured literary discussion.

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27 thoughts on “The (Non)Sense of an Ending

  1. There’s something wrong about reading your post up until the spoiler alert, since this story seems to be all about the ending–do I or don’t I? Or maybe I should go grab the book and start reading now–since it is just a novella? I’m always impressed when a work so short can be so deep at the same time, but did it leave you feeling unsatisfied at the end?

  2. I wish I could remember the details of this book better but it’s been almost a year since I read it. Andrew Blackman’s post refreshes some of my memory, but not well enough for me to recall what I thought happened. One thing I do remember and that still interests me about the experience of reading the book–and thinking about it after–is that it makes readers grasp for meaning, looking at tiny details that seem like they might have meaning but also might not. From what I remember, there were lots of little moments and gestures that seemed odd, thus making it seem like they should have meaning. But our memories pick up on lots of little things that aren’t necessarily meaningful. If Tony is grasping to find meaning, just as we readers are, he’d make a point of mentioning those things because he, like us, is trying to extract something from his recollections.

  3. I read this with one reading group last October and have it coming up with a second later this year. I’m hoping I will come nearer to understanding it the second time around and that a reason will come up to prompt a third read when I might be able to invoke the principle of third time lucky.

  4. I’m very confused. Why would a post on Barnes get 274 comments (Andrew’s blog)? Another blogger who has hardly any visitors mentioned that he had a huge increase after posting on this book. … That’s the type of thing that just puzzles me no end.
    Do people really need this much guidance when and ending is ambiguous? Since I haven’t read it, I can’t say how ambiguous it really is.
    I skipped your spoiler alert part – and have therefore also not read Andrew’s post but the beginning seems to say you’re a bit underwhelmed. When it came out I was so keen to read, now not that much anymore.

  5. I’m a bit curious about this book but I’ve also found Julian Barnes unsatisfying in the past. I read the one about Arthur Conan Doyle and I also read, I think it was called, Talking It Over. They were both fine, but I felt at the end as if I’d missed a stair.

  6. I didn’t read your post carefully, as I’m one of the few who hasn’t read this novel yet although I want to. So, I’ll just say i’m stopping by to say hi when I haven’t been around in ages. xo I’ll be back, of course, sooner vs. later.

  7. I felt tricked and manipulated by this novel and did not enjoy it. More than that, I was dumbfounded that it won the Booker and was so highly praised. I thought that the child was Tony and the mother’s but if I interpret your analysis correctly, you read it as a type of anti-novel whereby the author recreates the experiences of the protagonist by making the reader suffer the same lack of certainty. I think it’s more satisfying for a reader to be able to put the pieces of the puzzle together rather than failing to and thereby concluding that that’s the meaninglessness of the human condition.

  8. I was a bit underwhelmed by this book, but maybe just because it was a Booker winner and expectations were high. I do think it would be a good book group book though.
    I don’t remember the details well now, but I think that when I finished it I did think incest was the answer, and her dad’s behaviour just seemed more creepy. But I can’t remember clearly enough now to be sure what I thought happened- life imitating art I suppose.

  9. I’ll probably be passing this one up, Litlove. Although, since it is short, I might see if my library has it. I did read up to “spoiler alert” since I’m not sure, but you didn’t seem to be that crazy about it. I might be better off spending time reading something else. This sounds a bit depressing.

  10. I read it months or is it years ago, and enjoyed it then. The ending, though a bit sensational, isn’t that hard to decipher. I’ve always thought the mentally challenged man is the child of Veronica’s mother with Adrian. That makes him V’s brother. And maybe due to V’s mom’s age, the child turned out to be mentally challenged. Anyway, that could be one of the reasons mom has Adrian’s journal, and Adrian is driven to suicide due to his guilt. I went onto Andrew Blackman’s site and finds my take concurs with his.

    Anyway, my main issue with this book is: What’s the definition of ‘literary fiction’? What qualifies a book to be worthy of a literary prize or being short-listed? How do we draw the line between a ‘literary’ work or just ‘popular fiction’, other than the glossy book cover of the latter.

    I’m presently reading ‘The Art Forger’ (very classy cover, not glossy mind you) and find it ‘literary’, not only that, it’s highly enjoyable and informative, a fusion of genres. But don’t think it will win any prizes… (?)

  11. Wonderful post! I love your debunking of the various theories about what might have happened. After 250 comments proposing more or less every possibility you could think of, I was beginning to think myself completely unimaginative for my fairly prosaic interpretation. I was fairly sure that none of those things happened too, but with unreliable narrators it’s possible to argue yourself into and out of pretty much any position.

    The irony is, of course, that Barnes’s whole point is that we can’t know, and yet it seems hard to resist speculating anyway.

    Have you read Frank Kermode’s lit crit book with the same title? I can’t help thinking it might shed some interesting light on Barnes’s intentions, but haven’t read it myself or heard from anyone who has.

    Thanks for referring to my post, by the way, and for calling me “hugely talented”. Might talk to my publisher about sticking that on the cover of my next book :-)

  12. Ohmigosh! I recently finished The Sense of an Ending as well. I agree that there is much, much to say and write about it, and I’ve been going over everything I’ve thought and underlined.

    I very much appreciate what you’ve written. What I want to do now is study what you’ve written, and then comment.

    Thank you for your thoughts–just what I needed after reading this book!

    Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)

  13. I just finished the book and felt let down in the end. I enjoyed the prose, and the intrigue but it was like a jigsaw puzzle with too many pieces missing. I felt that I too was being personally taunted and told that I was a bit thick by Veronica’s childishly repeated, “You just don’t get it, do you?” I felt the author was playing cyncial games with Tony and me. I think I was deprived of a satisfyingly insightful experience.

  14. How I wish you’d written this post when I read the book, and remembered anything about it! I just recall being annoyed and underwhelmed by the whole thing. But that’s usually how I respond to Booker winners…

  15. As someone living with an intensely intelligent and emotionally vulnerable 16-year-old male, I’ve been avoiding this novella. Reading through your review, though, I’m struck by the question of whether the bits we can’t know while reading Barnes’ novella are like the way we can’t put together parts of the story until the end of McEwan’s Sweet Tooth–but that one has a big payoff in terms of revelation, and it sounds like this one has very little.

  16. I really liked this book when I read it. I quite enjoyed the never really knowing what happened and how Barnes time after time frustrates our natural inclination to make sense of things. I know the not knowing frustrated lots of readers but it is exciting and interesting I think when a writer is willing to take a risk like that.

  17. I really liked this book but still can’t make out what to think of the ending. I got really confused. I love how you have drawn out various conclusions and why some of them could not possibly be correct.

    I think when you talk about Tony and Veronica having sex just once, it could just be memory playing tricks again? I kind of assumed that there were possibly more encounters, but none very satisfying or memorable.

  18. Pingback: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes « The Sleepless Reader

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  21. I enjoyed your post, which I came across after rereading the novel in preparation for discussing it with my students. I appreciated its argument, but I also wanted to comment on its style. This sentence struck me as particularly lovely: “I would dearly love to give this book to all Mr Litlove’s friends from schooldays as I’m pretty sure they would recognise a perfect portrait of late male adolescence, all wit and bluster and camaraderie as a thin carapace over intolerable vulnerability.” Thank you — I’m thrilled to have discovered your blog.

  22. Finished this today, and the ending is so frustrating and after reconstructing the possibilities a few times it occurred to me I don’t get it. I am a man.

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