Friday, January 13, 2012

The Sense of an Ending

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (Random House Canada, 2011) 150 pages  ** SPOILER ALERT **

“A man’s closest-held beliefs about a friend, former lover and himself are undone in a subtly devastating novella from Barnes.” Kirkus review of The Sense of an Ending, November 1, 2010

To which I reply meh … This book recently won the 2011 Man Booker Prize. I’ll tell you honestly the first thing that a writer of modest or great publishing success thinks (usually with a smirk) when reading a prize-winning novel: is s/he really a better writer than I am? Yes, you dare to think this even with the literary greats. That's how large the insecure writer's ego is. So take everything I say with a grain of salt from a writer of very very modest publishing success.

The novel’s narrator, Anthony Webster, who is late into middle age, soulfully examines two key relationships from his past – Adrian, a former schoolmate and friend, and, Veronica, an ex-girlfriend, who eventually ends up dating Adrian after she dates Tony. I will have to reveal some of the plot in order to speak intelligently about this book.

Adrian is a “brilliant but gloomy” public school mate who routinely challenged his friends and teachers with insightful and sometimes cryptic remarks about history. Veronica is described as a “harridan” in the Kirkus review. I find this extremely odd. She's certainly prickly but let me fill you in …

Veronica’s biggest crime is not sleeping with Tony, breaking up with him and then sleeping with him on a chance encounter afterwards. This is in the Sixties but as Barnes explains it ... not quite the "Sixties". It is more like the "Fifties" in terms of sexual mores for the main character.

The narrator spends an inordinate amount of time repeatedly mulling over how insulted Tony felt during the one visit he made to Veronica’s family in Chislehurst, a suburban district in SE London. Father and brother Jack were perceived to be condescending – Tony felt the class differences sharply. Particularly irksome was a remark that Veronica made to her brother asking, “He’ll do won’t he?” and the brother impertinently winking at Tony. So huffed was he that Tony did not wink back. This is galling to Tony as well as the fact that Veronica lets him sleep in the day after they arrive telling the family that Tony “likes a good lie-in” and then brother, sister and father go for a long walk without him.This is a blatant untruth that annoys him. Exceedingly.

Really? Nothing of these scenarios suggests that Veronica is quite the bitch that Tony makes her out to be to us, the readers, and to his ex-wife Margaret to whom he relays the whole story years later. They label her "The Fruitcake". The very worst of it, in my eyes, is that after Veronica and Tony break up she takes up with Adrian. There is one brief scene where Veronica meets Tony’s friends and she is mildly flirtatious with Adrian, a harbinger of what is to come. She is clearly attracted to him and Tony can see that.

After Adrian and Veronica start dating and Adrian lets Tony know by letter, Tony responds with an angry, histrionic letter to the two basically cursing their union and any progeny to come. He implies to the reader and to Adrian that Veronica has suffered some sort of sexual abuse and is therefore “damaged” – we are meant to infer at the hands of her brother or father. Not long after Adrian kills himself without explanation. His school friends, now long dispersed, write it off to a sensitive, depressive nature.

But there is a red herring here that Tony keeps bringing up. When they were all in school together, a boy named Robson also killed himself presumably because he had got a girl pregnant. This lingers on in Tony's mind and in the reader's mind - was Robson's suicide in any way similar to Adrian's? If so, how?

Fast forward a number of years … Tony marries Margaret, has a child, divorces Margaret. Yet the spouses remain close friends. He is mildly unhappy as many middle-aged people are but is not desperately unhappy. Margaret, as a character, is paper thin as are almost all the characters – except she seems to inhabit one of two types that Tony is attracted to: the plain-speaking, perfectly straightforward woman (Margaret) vs. the mysterious, difficult woman (Veronica).

Forty years after Adrian's suicide Tony receives a note from a barrister. Veronica’s mother has died and she has bequeathed Adrian’s diary to Tony. The mother of the girl that both boys dated has Adrian’s diary? Why? How?

With her mother gone, Veronica holds on to the diary and she will not relinquish it to Tony. Apparently she still loathes Tony, presumably for the nasty letter he sent while she was dating Adrian or is it more problematic than that? She won't say exactly why she hates him. In any event, she will not hand it over and takes drastic measures to ensure that Tony does not receive it except to send a cryptically phrased page torn from the diary that is incomplete.

I don’t want to divulge any more (there is a big reveal towards the very end) except to say by the end of the novella we understand why Veronica is still bearing a tremendous grudge against Tony even after forty years.

Still ... it all rings completely false to me. Veronica is a brittle, condescending jerk but she is not the harridan that she is made out to be by Tony, the narrator, or the Kirkus reviewer.

Barnes, too clever for his own good?
Tony’s animosity towards Veronica’s family is also inexplicable to me. These slights against Tony (if they can be perceived as slights) seem insignificant and petty. Why does Tony infer that Veronica has been sexually abused – what cue in this meager plot would suggest that? Why is Tony so insulted by his interaction with Veronica’s family? 

Veronica’s fury, and it is fury, is understandable once you learn of the true extent of Adrian’s involvement with Veronica’s family. But why does she not tell Tony explicitly why she is angry? She continues to agree to meetings, sends e-mails, but reveals nothing substantial. She is curt, she is rude, she somehow blames Tony for what transpires which in no way can he can be held accountable for except in that he petulantly wished them all ill. Veronica even takes him on a silently furious, wordless, mystery ride to another part of town to observe a group of people that is somehow meant to open his eyes as to why she is being so intolerable to him. His eyes are opened but … very .. very … slowly.

Maybe Tony’s mother is right all along as to why Adrian killed himself (and possibly why authors concoct silly plots) … sometimes people are too clever for their own good and think too much about everything. I’m fairly certain this author did.


Meera said...

We live life with the assumption that age and time erode our memories of the past - that pain mitigates, and joy too looses it's ecstasy. If it sounds like a gross generalization, at least this is what I, as a 26 year old, had so long believed. In this poignant and tragic account of a 60 year old looking back at his life - indeed, all the way back to his school days - Julian Barnes (or rather Tony Webster) argues otherwise.

Reconciled to a lonely life, Tony Webster is past the stage of responsibility; way past. As he waits for the inevitable end to his days - no, it's not an illness, but presumably a state of mind - a letter from a lawyer stirs memories of a long forgotten past; memories even he had thought his mind to be incapable of conjuring. As the events unfold, he is forced to reevaluate his old relationships, reconsider the consequences of his actions, and indeed, re-imagine his past.

The title is apt to the point of being 'philosophically self-evident', for this is a book about a past that is never stagnant, a remorse that is incurable, and a grief that is inconsolable.

A Lit Chick said...

I'm sorry Meera, I generally enjoy Barnes' work but the plot felt silly and contrived to me. I was puzzled by the accolades (and prizes) it received.