No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, July 14, 2013

2013/22: The Sense of an Ending -- Julian Barnes

What did I know of life, I who had lived so carefully? Who had neither won nor lost, but just let life happen to him? Who had the usual ambitions and settled all too quickly for them not being realised? Who avoided being hurt and called it a capacity for survival? Who paid his bills, stayed on good terms with everyone as far as possible, for whom ecstasy and despair soon became just words once read in novels? [location 2229]

Julian Barnes' first novel Metroland was one of the first mainstream 'literary' novels I enjoyed: I must've read it soon after its publication in 1980, and I've reread it several times over the years, each time finding something new. As a teenager, I found Chris and Tony enviably sophisticated; as an adult, I found them entertainingly pompous. It's a book that's grown with me.

The setting and premise of The Sense of an Ending are comparable: it begins, again, with the narrator and his schoolfriends; progresses through first love and betrayal; is told from a perspective of advanced age. Narrator Tony and his friends still believe that Suffering confers Soul, or possibly Love; are still desperate to have sex; still find themselves gradually retreating from the passions of youth; still settle into a comfortable life. But there are differences, of course there are differences: this is not a young man's novel, and the 'advanced age' from which Tony looks back is the wrong side of sixty, rather than Chris' thirtysomething.

Most significant of the differences is that Tony realises -- slowly, gradually, painfully -- how much of the story of his own life he's missed or misinterpreted. "...what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed." [location 62]. He's (eventually) harsher on his younger self than Chris ever is. And the events set in motion by Tony's youthful rejection of his (ex)girlfriend Veronica and his best friend Adrian, who've begun a relationship of their own, are more tragic, more complex and more consequential than anything in Metroland.

Though I am not wholly convinced that the novel explicitly states those consequences.

There's a pair of equations (hey, Adrian is a Serious Intellectual, given to philosophising) which seem to hold the key to events, to be the pivot-point of the whole novel. Characters are encoded as initials. And life (well, The Sense of an Ending) would be much simpler if 'Tony' wasn't short for 'Anthony'.

The Sense of an Ending is, structurally, a marvellous artifice: it's short, unshowy, but packs an amazing amount of plot and character. Unpacking everything that happens, and the motives of the various characters, may require one or more rereads. Here, on first reading, I wish to record that it's a novel that repays close attention; that left me slightly queasy; that riffs on Metroland -- and possibly on Barnes' other work, with which I don't have as close an engagement -- in interesting and poignant ways.

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. [location 1286]

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