Archive for June, 2014

THE SENSE OF AN ENDING by JULIAN BARNES

 

200px-The_Sense_of_an_Ending  .
It’s tempting to say it was like a car crash where no one gets hurt and no cars are damaged. It was notable but left no lasting impression – but that would not be true. Although there are no remarkable characters, nothing much happens, and it’s not set in a novel time or place, the book does leave a lasting impression, not because of its story but it’s message.

The central concept is an important one and it’s well explained. Barnes delivers his message early and often, through the words of his narrator, Tony, through his experiences, through the words of other characters, and the plot. He also clearly wants us to understand that his point is meant to be universal. He sets the story amongst ordinary characters in ordinary circumstances, so the reader cannot escape or excuse themselves on the grounds that it’s only an issue for the great, good or evil, that typically populate novels.

There are quite a few quotes that sum up Barnes’ message, but the one that stays with me is from very early in the book. Tony describes a scene in which his high school history teacher asks tony’s friend Adrian what history is. Adrian replies that it is where the inaccuracy of memory meets the inadequacy of documentation.

The cleverness of this is that the idea is easy for us to accept, obvious even, in the context of history with a capital H. How do we know what happened in the past, to the Greeks, Romans or cave men – only from what remains? But Barnes’ mission is to make us understand this is equally true of our own personal history – our memories. So he first gets us to accept it for History and then uses the rest of the book – the tale of poor old ordinary tony, our doppelgänger – to convince us that having agreed history is constructed from its remains we must also agree that we manufacture our memories from the fossils of our own past. That our memories can be, and should be, reconstructed when new evidence emerges.

It’s a great message but if you want to be critical you can ask the question – is it ok to use a novel in such an instrumental way – that is to deliver a message not a story? You could say the book is didactic, it wants teach us something and everything in it is aimed at that outcome. Whilst that is true I think its being unfairly over critical. The book is not a sermon interrupted by bits and pieces of story, it’s a story, however ordinary, told in such a way that it makes a point, over and over again. In that way it is like all literature, it’s just that in this case there is one message, not many, and the message is clear – we can only have a sense of an ending, one we construct from inaccurate memories and inadequate documents. It’s also a very short novel so you can’t can’t accuse Barnes of being self indulgent.

It’s arguable though that there is another message, and another meaning for the title. The second half of the book is devoted to Tony’s growing obsession with reconnecting with his first girlfriend whom his ex calls the fruitcake, and in doing so unravelling the events of 40 years before involving the fruitcake, her mother and Adrian. He persues this quest to such an extent that his ex says, echoing the thoughts of many readers, you are on your own now. On this quest he does learn a lot but all the details are never nailed down, tony just reaches a point and chooses to go back to his old life and give up his obsession. Neither he nor the reader gets that horrible Hollywood – Fox News cliche – closure. Rather, what we get is a renewed sense of the beginning and a range of possible endings.

If this book works as a vaccination against the global pandemic of desperate need for closure, that apparently every relative of every victim of every newsworthy tragedy suffers from, according all the news media at least, then I want to make it compulsory reading.

Most bookgroupers liked it, some a lot, some like me were a little lukewarm. If you are looking for action, or bizarre characters doing bizarre things in bizarre locations, this is not for you. If you want a short story, well told, with a clear message, characters that feel real and face everyday dilemmas, then you could do a lot worse than to go out and obtain your own sense of an ending.

 

 

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June 3, 2014 at 12:45 pm Leave a comment


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