The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes

Julian Barnes won the 2011 Man Booker prize for his novel The Sense of an Ending. From what I can tell, it’s been a long time coming. Barnes has published three collections of stories, several collections of essays, a translation of In the Land of Pain by Alphonse Daudet’s, and multiple award-winning novels. He is obviously a master of craft. In fact, he is the only writer to have won both the Prix Medicis and the Prix Femina. Both are French literary awards, the former being one for a writer whose “fame does not yet match his talent,” and the later being awarded by a jury composed only of women. Hell, in 2004 he was named  a Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. No, I do not know what that means.

Not great.

I’ve been a fan of the Man Booker since Life of Pi won in 2002. I feel towards it the same way I assume soccer fans feel towards the World Cup, if authors sold branded scarves I’d definitely wear them. When the 2011 winner was announced, I found it fitting. Not because I had read Barnes, but because I know of him, knew that he’d been around for awhile, and knew that he’d not won before. There’s something to be said for endurance.

I usually don’t read the Man Booker, as much as I’d like to say otherwise. I felt betrayed with The White Tiger and considered the prize to be outside of my interest. An event I followed closely without being intimately involved, as it were. But there was one specific outlier in The Sense of an Ending that caught my eye: it’s length. The novel is only 163 pages long, I read it in it’s entirety during a weekend’s series of plane rides.

Anita Brookner, staff writer for The Telegraph, describes the novel’s effect as “disturbing – all the more so for being written with Barnes’s habitual lucidity. His reputation will surely be enhanced by this book. Do not be misled by its brevity. Its mystery is as deeply embedded as the most archaic of memories.”

The story occurs in two parts, both being looked back on by the aged narrator. The first section describes a period in time when the main character, Tony, was coming of age. He explains the relationship between he and his three best friends, their eventual disbursement into the collegate life, and the eventual disintegration of their relationships. The second part jumps ahead 40 years, connecting the last stages of Tony’s life to the first.

A central theme of the novel is memory. Specifically, it’s fluidity and uncertainty. Tony sums it up quite nicely and with an appropriate sense of brevity, on several occasions, as he muses:

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

The story is very clever in the way it’s written, Barnes does a masterful job of implementing representation, realism, reppetition, and even contradiction to convey a sense of aging, memory, and regret. The second section ends with a confused Tony, having reexamined his life and his value, now uncertain of his life’s worth. To be honest, the act of reading The Sense of an Ending is somewhat horrifying. I left the book feeling hopeless, even forlorn, as if though I too had wasted my life, was mistaken on my merit, and doomed to die alone.

I’m 26.

The Sense of an Ending is undoubtedly a masterpiece. It’s a giant, in it’s small stature, of literature, an instant classic, a book to be taught. There is no doubt that Barnes is a genius and a profoundly talented writer, his style is exquisite. However, there’s always the matter of plot and of purpose. The Sense of an Ending asks the reader to live a life of introspection and self speculation. The old adage “an unexamined life is not worth living” echoes in both tone and tactic.

Now, I think all art should ask it’s audience to examine something they might otherwise leave unknown. The Sense of an Ending does that, and it does it very well, perhaps more so than  I’d prefer. My problem is a personal one, that Barnes uses a negative emotional response to exchange this idea. Like I said, Barnes is a masterful writer, so much so that I am confident he could have delivered the same introspective response by using a positive emotional response.

Call me naive, but positive emotions always trump the negative when being didactic. Now, I admit that this is just my opinion, and not a metric by which Barnes’s work should be judged. The Sense of an Ending is unquestionably fantastic. My problem, or rather, my hesitation, comes from the way I felt after experiencing the work. It was haunting, yes, but without hope. Maybe this is a symptom of youth. Barnes is himself writing from the same perspective as the narrator, an older man who is coming to terms with a perspective gained with age.

I think this book is wroth reading, and I think it’s important. It raises many interesting and valid philosophical questions and, in my reading, urges it’s audience to fight against normalcy, reject mediocrity, and chase after a literary life. It’s a lesson taught with pain, spoken from the mouth of a man who has failed his own realization. It’s the manifestation of a fear we all have, that we might die alone and unfulfilled with a life not worth remembering. It is at once beautiful and uncertain.

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