Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

In the end, it makes great sense to pick up a Booker winner. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes has all the ingredients of an entertaining read- a lucid and intimate style that keeps you turning pages, and the promise of a suspenseful ending that is fully delivered by a fabulous plot. You realise after putting the book down however, that what you read is poetry in perfect prose, masquerading as a novel. Bravo Mr. Barnes!

I can’t help comparing Julian Barnes’s winner to the book I read just before I started on this one- Snowdrops by Andrew Miller (see my review post dated 31January in this blog). Both are books by English writers, written in first person, with understated but flawed protagonists. I had written that Snowdrops reads like a drunken anecdote stretched out into a book. I could just imagine a bunch of wasted expatriates exchanging stories in a bar at 3 AM. No doubt there was a woman in the party that the expat lawyer/banker/journalist wanted to impress. And maybe there was too, a journalist filing away stories for later, to string together into handiwork that would float up from the debris of literary wannabes when conditions were right (We need fresh work now- too much immigrant angst, too much mid-life crisis, too much coming of age, too much Irish/South Asian/ Caribbean/West African/ Chinese/ Japanese sensibility, let us have something contemporary and new- how about Arabia, Russia, in fact we have nothing set in Moscow- you have? Glory be! Hope it is nothing about Russian immigrant angst… No? Even better)!

On the other hand, in The S of an E, an anecdote in the life of a thoughtful person turns into an introspective, indeed deeply interrogative exercise to become a commentary on his life. And whilst the protagonist makes his journey, the author conveys to us the picture of a flawed character, coming to terms with his culpability.

The story then is of sixty-year old Anthony Webster who grew up in London. The main players in this story are- Anthony, his clever and incredibly self-assured school friend, Adrian Finn, his clever and incredibly self-assured sounding ex-girlfriend, and her family. It is told entirely from Anthony’s perspective and from his old memory, in a rather ruminative and placid style that is surprisingly engrossing. The tale fascinates, to borrow an expression from the fashion-world, the tale fascinates with its detailing: the intense school yard discussions that bring a smile to your face, an older man’s defensive descriptions of the sexual mores of his time, a college weekend gone wrong that highlights the subtleties in English ‘class’ interactions, the secret life of a mother deciphered in the throw of a pan and a wave. The twists in the tale are if not shocking, astonishing and gripping. I can’t say anything more without outing the suspense, except to say that Anthony and the reader have to reorder their opinions many times before the story winds to a darn good finish.

Anthony as the protagonist is a sensitive man who tries to be objective in his assessments, he is aware that his memory might not always serve him right and moreover seems to understand others’ failings. But it is not enough! Even as Anthony pauses at the end of his narrative, he senses but does not see culpability in a great many of his actions. Take for example his insensitivity to a lonely ex-wife. He does not want to be with her, which is fair enough- I certainly did not take to her brash pretending-to-be-straightforward manner- but does he sense her need, has he worked it out that he does not like her enough and his hanging out with her is no more solely self-serving than going out with Veronica Ford all those years back? His remorse unaccompanied by penance, his insincere insistence on convention that hides enormous rage. Oh but I have got carried away. Anthony Webster is a figment of Julian Barnes’s imagination, not a real person, just as The Sense of an Ending is fiction though it reads like truth that is stranger than fiction. So I believe. Now if Julian Barnes would only write another one hundred and fifty page masterpiece told by Webster’s ex-girlfriend, Veronica Ford! That would be heaven.

Have you not read the book yet? What is your excuse?


It was happy but short. V was disappointed by the ending, maybe disturbed. A was struck by the weekend episode in the book. We discussed the English ‘class’ divide, and how it cuts both ways with some people having a massive chip on their shoulder. Thereon we went on to talking of Snowdrops, with V giving a lot of Moscow colour.

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