Great novel plays with a man’s conscience and memory
by Rob Neufeld
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes is a different kind of mystery—not the whodunit variety, which has no real sense of closure, except in a legal sense; or in the relief of having a threat extinguished.
The mystery in this novel has to do with a caring, self-centered person’s need to resolve, forty years after the fact, his part in a relationship with a puzzling girlfriend and a friend’s suicide.
“You just don’t get it, do you?” Veronica, the girlfriend, tells the narrator, Tony Webster, on several occasions.
The Sense of the Ending, is the subject of Book Discussion X at Accent on Books, 7 p.m., Thurs., Mar. 14.
Barnes’ novel has comedy, great dialogue, plot surprises, and anecdotes—but, right from the start, it’s Tony’s philosophical seriousness that does the main carrying job.
The first paragraph is in some ways not typical of the book. “I remember in no particular order,” the narrator prefaces, launching into a list of six seemingly unrelated images, including one graphic one.
He then talks about the way time has nothing to with a clock, and he eases into his school days at an English private school. Tony and his sardonic pals were fake smart, and wanted to lead lives like the ones in great literature. Enter, Adrian, un-flippant and brilliant, and a magnet of interest like Sophie to Stingo in William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice.
When Old Joe Hunt, history teacher, asks his class, “What is history?”, Adrian responds, it is “the certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”
“Would you care to give an example?” the teacher says.
“Robson’s suicide, sir.” The school had just received news about a student whom the boys barely knew, and Adrian wanted to show that even events not obscured by centuries were beyond mysterious.
Memories float up
On page 31, one of the random impressions noted in the novel’s first paragraph—“steam rising from a wet sink as a hot frying pan is laughingly tossed into it”—comes to the surface and fleshes out.
Tony has graduated from secondary school and found his first serious girlfriend, Veronica. Veronica is enigmatic, manipulative, or troubled—it’s hard to tell. Tony visits her family for the first time, and finds them snobbishly mocking, except for Veronica’s mother, Mrs. Ford.
One morning, after Veronica, her father, and her brother take off on an outing, letting Tony sleep in, he is treated to breakfast by Mrs. Ford, whom the brother refers to as “the mother.” Tony notices a couple of seemingly insignificant gestures—including her tossing of the frying pan. Mrs. Ford says—memorably, as it turns out—“Don’t let Veronica get away with too much.”
As a reader, I get great pleasure from the surfacing of previously unexplained references. We know more will follow. And it has so much to do with the big story. Isn’t it odd, we think, how a tiny moment in our past can attain much bigger dramatic status than big events?
Tony and Veronica break up, and she, he learns in a letter, hooks up with Adrian. He writes Adrian a letter, advising him “to be prudent, because in my opinion Veronica has suffered damage a long way back.”
Later on in the novel, he—and we—get another account of that warning letter, and it is a shock. Memory is selective, it seems. For the moment, Tony goes into a meditation about the damage that “we all suffer.”
One more revelation. It’s something of a spoiler, but the book’s flyleaf also gives it away. Adrian commits suicide, and Tony inherits from Mrs. Ford 500 pounds and Adrian’s diary. This is a mystery that must be explained.
We’re on page 69, and at the beginning of part two of the novel.
The second, and larger, part of The Sense of an Ending, involves Tony as a 60-year-old. The poor guy is obsessed with his past.
He consults his ex-wife, Margaret. (He had married and divorced a woman who is Veronica’s opposite—she has a low opinion of mysteriousness.)
Margaret suggests he take the money from Mrs. Ford and take Margaret on a holiday.
“If she’d wanted me to spend the money on a holiday for two,” Tony muses about his straightforward ex, “she’d have said so. Yes, I realize that’s exactly what she did say, but…”
The painfulness of Tony’s predicament—his struggle and dimly dawning awareness of his lack of a great life (like John Marcher in Henry James’ story, “The Beast in the Jungle”)—contains a lot of humor, and Barnes is a virtuoso in mining that for pace and poignancy.
At one point, Veronica takes him on a wild drive to give him a clue about what’s what, and Tony, thinking he has the sane person’s upper hand, irritates her with a barrage of banalities.
“This is a very interesting part of town,” he says.
“There are a lot of fat people around nowadays,” he says.
Let me tell you about the novel’s ending. This is not in the least a give-away because Barnes leaves you with Tony saying he’s finally figured things out, but he doesn’t reveal what. Barnes tells you what memories Tony is targeting, but not their explanations.
Isn’t that the mark of a great book? You want to keep thinking about it after you’ve put it down.
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (Knopf, 2011, 169 pages, $23.95; Vintage trade paper, 2012, $14.95). The novel was short-listed for the 2011 Man Booker Prize.