When I heard the title of the book that won last year’s Man Booker Prize, I immediately remembered reading Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending, and how important it was to me at the time, and using it to write a paper on Daisy Miller, which at the time I considered some of my best work. I remember knowing instantly that this new book, the original’s namesake, would be a story about time, and the way in which occurrences in the present can retroactively charge the seemingly insignificant actions of the past with vitality, for better or worse. In Julian Barnes’ spare, introspective book, the sense of the ending we– and the narrator– look for for depends on how that newly revitalized past changes our current sense of who we are. We might be aware of our lives as narratives comprised of many stories, but each of us believes we know what the main plot thread is. Some of us are right, and some of us, whether we know it or not, are still waiting for the ending to tell us what was most important about the past, and whether we were heroes or villains.
Tony Webster, the narrator of The Sense of an Ending, has been focusing on the wrong plot thread, it seems, until one day, when he is well into his 60s, he receives a letter from his college girlfriend’s mother. She has died and left him £500 and a letter that compels Tony to seek out this former girlfriend, Veronica. Tony is old enough now to know that his memories of his time with Veronica are little more than the subjective impressions of an old man about the subjective impressions of a young man, but he wants Veronica to corroborate these impressions: “It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age: when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others.” Tony wants Veronica to invent a past for him.
Barnes’ prose is the prose of a writer who has read so widely, and thought so deeply, that the language of a thousand great minds has fused itself into his voice, and flows out from his pen effortlessly. It is neither flowery nor curt. It is intelligently conversational, not quite as if you were reading a long letter from the most ingenious and artistic friend you have, because no one has friends who write letters this beautifully; but almost. He openly uses water as a symbol to discuss time in its various states, whether it’s moving backwards, forwards, down a drain, or not at all. He is adept at crystallizing, in words, the nebulous self-doubts and disappointments we hold about ourselves, and reading some of my innermost fears written out on a page was all at once beautiful, astonishing, and painful.
Before I start to sound like the poster child for the affective fallacy, let me praise the book’s technical merits. The book is part story, part seamlessly interwoven meditation on the nature of memory and time. Tony learns things that charge his seemingly uneventful past with significance, but which also throw into relief the careful plotting of the book’s first half. This is a book that compels your closest attention while simultaneously eluding total comprehension on the first pass. Like certain memories, the book demands repeated review, and I know I’ll be reading it again more than once. Not because I expect I’ll ever feel a sense of resolution about it; to a large extent, though the literal ending to the plot is well-defined, Barnes’ point seems to be that any sense of an ending we might have about ourselves is illusory. If you decide to read The Sense of an Ending, I suggest you take in its hundred and sixty three pages in one two or three hour sitting, pausing occasionally to stare at the fold between the wall and the ceiling, and letting the words and thoughts soak all the way through.