Okay, 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.