Julian Barnes, The sense of an ending (Review)

I should have known I wouldn’t be the first to think of it, but during my reading Julian Barnes‘ Booker Prize winning novel, The sense of an ending, I was suddenly reminded of TS Eliot‘s The love song of J. Alfred Prufrock. It was the melancholic tone, the sense of life having passed one by, that did it:

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?

Doesn’t that remind you of “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons”? I don’t usually read reviews before I write my own, but I wondered if my thought had come to anyone else. Of course it had. I googled “julian barnes sense of an ending prufrock” and up came several hits. Oh well, I thought, at least I’m not going to sound totally foolish. There is safety in numbers, after all, which brings me back to Tony, the novel’s protagonist, who says, at another point in the novel:

I’m not odd enough not to have done the things I’ve ended up doing with my life.

I admit to having a certain fellow feeling with Tony, a self-confessed “average” person who’s led an average life “of some achievements and some disappointments”. But, enough self-revelation, let’s get on with the review.

I’ll start by saying that this book is right up my alley. Firstly, it’s a novella and regular readers here know how I love a good novella. Secondly, it’s a good novella, by which I mean it’s tightly constructed and sparely written. And thirdly, plot is not the main point; character and life are Barnes’ focus.

Nonetheless, while there’s not a strong plot, there is of course a story, and it concerns the aforesaid Tony. He’s the first person narrator and is a reliably unreliable one. He tells us this on the second page, while at the same giving away the novel’s essential form:

But school is where it all began, so I need to return to a few incidents that have grown into anecdotes, to some approximate memories which time has deformed into certainty. If I can’t be sure of the actual events any more, I can at least be true to the impressions those facts left. That’s the best I can manage.

This tight little para tells us a few things about what’s to come. The word “deformed” combined with the idea that he “can’t be sure of the actual events” tells us to beware, that imperfect (for whatever reason) memory is at play. The mention of returning “to a few incidents” describes the basic structure of the novel, as it does indeed focus on and tease out the ramifications of a “few incidents”.  And the reference to school hints that there might be something of the bildungsroman about it.

I still haven’t told you anything about the story, though, have I? It’s divided into two parts. In Part One, Tony is in his teens and twenties and focuses on his three male friends and his first serious girlfriend, Veronica. This part is less than 60 pages and, as Tony promises at the beginning, primarily comprises a few scenes from his life, linked by some running commentary. There are classroom scenes and a particularly memorable one involving his first  (and only) weekend visit to his girlfriend’s home. We come back to this scene in the second part. I loved how, after spending some 50 pages on his youth, Tony wraps up around 40 years of his adult life in two pages. Impressive writing.

In Part Two, Tony is confronted again with some of the major incidents from his youth and is forced to reconsider his sense of self. The most important of these incidents concerns the suicide of one of his friends … and gradually we get a whiff of a mystery, albeit one just hovering around the edges. This is because the mystery is not the main point.

Tony, in this part, is bequeathed, out of the blue, the diary of the friend who had committed suicide 40 years previously. Now, Tony believes that it is the witnesses to your life, those you spent time with, who “corroborate” who you are. As these people drop away, there is, he says “less corroboration, and therefore less certainty to what you are or have been”. He therefore sees this diary as potentially significant:

The diary was evidence; it was – it might be – corroboration. It might disrupt the banal reiterations of memory. It might jump start something – though I had no idea what.

The bequest does “jump start something” but to what purpose is the moot point. An issue that occupies Tony is that of change. “Does character develop over time?” he asks and then continues, in one of those little postmodern touches we’ve become used to, “In novels of course it does, otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a story”. You said it, Tony/Julian, we are tempted to respond, except that by this time Tony had so captured my attention that the minimal story was neither here nor there.

And this is where I’ll leave the story … and return to an issue I raised earlier in the post, that regarding its being something of a bildungsroman. It’s not a traditional coming-of-age novel because only the first part of the novel chronicles his development as a young man. But, something is jump started for Tony in his 60s that forces him to rethink who he had been and who he had become. Memory, he says, can lock you into

the same loops, the same facts and the same emotions. I press the button marked Adrian or Veronica, the tape runs and the usual stuff spins out. The events reconfirm the emotions – resentment,  sense of injustice, relief – and vice versa. There seems no way of accessing anything else; the case is closed.

Occasionally, however, something happens to break the loop, as it does for Tony. He is suddenly confronted with new (or, different) memories which bring new emotions. He looks at “the chain of responsibility” and sees “my initial there”. He learns that the things he’d thought fixed or certain can be dissolved, that memory cannot be relied upon and can, in fact, come back to bite you. Time and memory, Barnes shows us, are malleable, suggesting, to me at least, that perhaps we never really do come of age.

Julian Barnes
The sense of an ending
London: Vintage, 2011
ISBN: 9780099564973

61 thoughts on “Julian Barnes, The sense of an ending (Review)

  1. Sue, I have this on my Kindle, and have been trying to save it for closer to when we discuss it in Book Club. May not be able to having read this!

    • Oh thanks for commenting Glenys … my bookgroup did it last night. We had a lively discussion with a range of opinions. Anyhow, do tell me what you think when you do get to read it.

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  3. Oh Sue, you’ve got me wanting to drop everything to read this. I plan to read it, had planned to, because I like Barnes, but I love books that play with memory and mull about it. I didn’t realize this was one of those books. And even though your thought to connect the book to Prufrock turned out not to be original, you thought of it on your own so you should be pleased about that! 🙂

    • It’s a quick read Stefanie … and if you like discussions of memory then you are sure to like this. It’s tight and the subject matter gets you in. There are those who find Tony tedious and not worthy of attention, but I’m not one of them!

  4. You already know that I really enjoyed this book, but I wanted to pop in to second you on your praise of novellas generally. I shudder a little with delight just at the thought of a “tightly constructed and sparely written” novella.

    And this is definitely one of those. I hadn’t read any Barnes before, but now I simply must read more.

  5. Thank you for an interesting and insightful review! I never thought of Prufrock but now can see how apt the comparison is. Also, with the unexpected bequest, I think Tony not only needs to wrestle with the validity of his memories, but the question of which version of self and of others he should take as the ‘truth’, what actually had happened in his and by connection, other people’s lives, and the ultimate, painful struggle of how much of others’ lives is he responsible for. I wish I could join your book discussion group after everyone has read the book and openly talk about it. 😉 On some other blogs, I’ve read readers’ debate as to the different interpretations of the ending.

  6. One more thing … since you mentioned your love of novella. I’ve just read Colum McCann’s Everything in this Country Must, a book with two short stories and a novella, which is just 107 pages. If you remember, McCann is the author of Let The Great World Spin. His novella, and the short stories are as you’ve described spare and tightly constructed… and very powerful. Don’t read my review (my current post), I know you’d love to read the book first. 😉

  7. Great connection with Prufrock.

    I don’t know about the “less corroboration” as people drop out of your life. I know plenty of people who use this as an opportunity for re-invention and sanitation,moving on to fresh fields and new victims.

  8. I read this a while ago still waiting to review it sue but I like the feeling of the fluidness of our memories at times and I wonder how much we do remember that isn’t true but think is true ,all the best stu

    • Yes, exactly Stu. I do sometimes wonder how real some of my memories are. It’s a little scarifying to think our selves might be constructed on such shaky foundations! Don’t wait too long to review it!

  9. When I read this last year I must have also being reading some memoirs, because I remember thinking, yes, yes. How much our memory deceives us. It is protection, I suppose. I too, am a fan of novellas. They are tightly written and yet tell you so much.

    • Thanks Meg … That idea of protection is a good one … And held true for Tony until his memory came into question. I loved his discussion of remorse. So much to write about such a little book!

  10. The love song of J. Alfred Prufrock is one of my favourite poems, and the connection does suggest itself (for me once pointed out, nice insight).

    There is definitely a theme here of how, and more to the point if, character changes over time. It’s a very Anthony Powell-esque theme, but here condensed and nicely captured.

    I’m glad we focussed on different aspects of the book. It’s always a good sign when a book can support multiple readings, and here I think both and others too are there. It’s quite a dense little tome in that way, for all it’s a fairly light read.

    • Thanks Max … the Prufrock insight is a sideline to the main game here but it was there for me.

      The frustrating thing with writing about this book is that it’s so small and readable and yet full of things to tease out, angles to approach it from. I can imagine reading it again and seeing some different angles throwing different lights on the memory-time theme.

      Yes, “If” is the issue isn’t it … but I didn’t want to go into that for fear of giving too much away for the first time reader.

  11. What a lovely meditative post. Though you could never, never be average. Dedicated, funny, caring, intelligent, loving, determined, so many wonderful things, never average. xoxo

  12. Great post. I’m ashamed to say though that I didn’t love it as much as you – as with so much of Julian Barnes’s writing, I found it a little tucked up and controlled, if that makes any sense. I am prepared to put up with tight spareness in Penelope Fitzgerald because she remains always and ever aware of absurdity, whereas Barnes is portentously solemn most of the time in this volume, I found. But perhaps my ear wasn’t finely tuned enough.

    • Thanks for commenting zmkc. I agree with controlled, though I’m not sure that it’s fully tucked up. We had a lovely discussion in my bookgroup on this one with one disliking it a lot, one being mildly positive, one being highly enthusiastic, and the rest of us liking it a lot.

      I still have to read Penelope Fitzgerald … do have book of hers in my piles (the book kind!). I can see how you might see this as “portentously solemn”, but his language and the touches of humour (which I just didn’t see how I could fit into this review) saved it for me from being that.

  13. This has nothing to do with Julian Barnes, but I’m putting it here because you don’t seem to be checking back on comments from old entries. On 18/11/09 and 16/2/10 you quoted a poem of mine called ‘The Last Red Gum’, but attributed it to the David Campbell who died in 1979. I’m very much alive, however, and still writing. The poem appeared in my 2007 book ‘Skycatcher’ and you can hear an audio version on my website: http://www.campbellwriter.com. I’d appreciate it if you could correct your references.

    Many thanks
    The ‘other’ David Campbell

    • I’m truly sorry David … I didn’t realise and this is the first time I’ve seen a comment from you. I have no other comments pending from new commenters so I have no idea what happened to other comments you’ve made. However, it is a great poem and I will fix the entry. I hope you are happy for me to quote it.

  14. Bit late commenting sorry. I loved this book and felt a real sense of dread creeping up on me as it went along. I really felt for Tony whose sense of his past began to slowly erode as he realised that it wasn’t at all what he thought and that he may in fact have been culpable for a wrong in some way. This is a terrible feeling especially to someone like him who had tried to keep his life ‘average” “ordinary’ etc in self-defense against the world only to find that effort – with all its associated costs – was a farce. Beautiful writing to slowly tighten the screws like that.

  15. Hi Sue, thanks for your review of ‘The Sense of an Ending’. The book is on my bedside table and I hope to get to it shortly. And I loved this line in your post: ‘perhaps we never really do come of age’. At the ripe old age of 43, this is rather comforting. PS Glad to hear of your ongoing love of the novella.

  16. Loved this book. Had to read it twice to find the clues I had missed. Then in discussion with another fan who told me that Veronica had set up the mother-adrian thing I had to read it a third time…not many books I can do that to… and still enjoy!

    • thanks for commenting Jill. You sound like someone in my reading group who read it again as soon as she finished it to look for the clues Do you really think Veromica set that up? I’m not sure about that aspect … What clues point you to that conclusion? I think my focus is more on Tony than on what Veronica, Adrian and Sarah did?

  17. I hadn’t thought of ‘The love song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ when reading this – thanks for the good idea. I really enjoyed your review, and admire the fullness of your style. I’m not sure about its being a bildungsroman, but it’s an interesting thought and something to mull over in my lazy grey cells.

    My review: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

    • Thanks Matthew, and welcome … the “bildungsroman” idea is a bit out there I know but I reckon I could argue a case (if I weren’t so lazy! I know that feeling too you see!)

  18. Haha, yes indeed. I like some ‘out there’ ideas though – that’s half the fun of reading other bloggers thoughts for me – you always pick up something interesting.

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  21. I just finished the book today and I’m in complete awe of it…I don’t remember the last book that gave me that feeling, but then it may just be my imperfect memory and wanting for appropriate documentation :)..and after reading your review and subsequent comments and another review elsewhere, I surely feel the need to read it again, not necessarily to find out missing clues or “inadequate documentation”, but only to just admire the lucidity with which he argues the deformation of memory with time. And I’m not an avid reader..more an an avid film-goer. Any clues if anyone’s taken the book’s movie-rights?

    • Thanks Mudit for this great comment. It’s a clever book that sticks with you idn’t it? It would make a good movie though it would be hard to get the subtlety of his thoughts and experience. I havrn’t heard though whether it’s been optioned.

  22. I know I’m coming late to this post (though I did provide an interim comment earlier). I’ve now read The Sense of an Ending, and I loved it – very much. Yes, I was attracted to the melancholic tone, but the writing was beautiful – perfect-pitch, you could say. It’s a great example of a small book that says so much with so few words. And the depth of analysis was extraordinary. So it’s nice to come back to your thoughtful review, read it again, and find how much I agreed. (PS Thanks for your thoughts on the Panorama piece – those things are a delight to write.)

    • Oh thanks, Nigel, for coming back to comment. I’m glad you liked it too. In some ways I felt I didn’t do it justice, but then it’s such a complex little book that it is hard to cover fully in one post without writing more than most want to read. N’est-ce pas?

      • I’m new to Barnes, very much enjoyed “Arthur & George”. Read “The Sense Of An Ending” twice and I’m ashamed to admit the ending baffles me. Is Adrian Adrian’s father? Perhaps I’m not sophisticated enough to grasp what may be obvious to everyone else?

  23. failure to understand the ending of this story is certainly not a lack of sophistication. A lack of skilful writing is more to the point.With little or no help, are we supposed to conclude that this middle aged lady had seduced Adrian and allowed him to impregnate her……..now that sounds like an idea for a novel !

    No wonder our hero Tony never got it…..Sherlock Holmes would have struggled.

    at no time was this woman portrayed as a slayer of young boys, furthermore a casual suggestion to `ask her mother` was not a life changing instruction to a hitherto smartass of Adrian`s proportions.

    As for Adrian being popular…. well if Adrian had been a student in my Grammar school and he had been correcting teachers all over the place and quoting poetry, he would have been been beaten up every Lunch time,……..not worshipped by his schoolmates.

    used to like Mr Barnes but this novel bore no realtiy……………whats more i enjoyed the suspenseful middle part and felt exceptionally annoyed by the opaque ending.

    can anyone tell me……what exactly did the `horizontal gesture ` mean ???

    • Welcome Mike and thanks for commenting. I’m not sure where to start because my feelings about the book are quite different to yours. I found it an intriguing, subtle piece of writing that got me (and others) talking and thinking. The way I see it is that Tony is someone who has misremembered things at best or deluded himself at worst. He’s always been a bit self-conscious and self-absorbed which get in the way of his “getting” things.

      Was Adrian popular? I can’t remember. My recollection is that he was liked by a small group of intellectually precocious boys?

      I agree that Sarah wasn’t exactly presented as a slayer of boys but we saw her through Tony’s eyes and his eyes certainly saw something a bit ambiguous or odd in her behaviour. That allows us I think to accept, later on, that she could be a “Mrs Robinson”?

      As for the horizontal gesture, I can’t be sure, but I think I took it as a dismissive wave but there could be more to it than that.

      I don’t think any of this is very helpful but I think the clue to this novel is seeing it as a book written from a narrow point of view, which means that it is very likely that not all will/can be explained? And that’s OK with me. I reckon if I read it again, I’d see new things/ideas/slants in it.

      • Thanks for entertaining my ramblings above. food for thought which perhaps JB sets out to generate. BUT, Tony maybe saw something a bit ambiguous about Sarah (at least compared to her ignoramus of a husband – and son) this was never enough to allow us to see her as a Mrs Robinson, speaking as someone who would very much have liked to meet Mrs Robinson at that age ! …………I feel JB would have to do more to convey the sense of a seductress (which is after what must have occurred).

        As for the wave………JB makes sure we dont forget it by reminding us on or about the last page. It must have been significant but i cant for the life of me figure out in what way.

        so……….readable, sometimes (in the middle) engrossing, ….but for me it is still an unsatisfying conundrum.

        what shall we read next ? Capital by john Lanchester (whilst perhaps less veiled) was a thoroughly satisfying page turner ……….and the laments were
        somewhat less self-indulgent. ……..oh yes , it was funny too!


        • Always happy to entertain thoughtful ramblings Mike … it’s a book I’d happily read again just to see if I could pick up more nuances that explain some of the mysteries.

          Haven’t read John Lanchester …. sounds worth exploring.

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  25. To me this book constructed a tangible world out of the abstract ideas of time and memory and that alone astounded me! it took me on a ride like I was traveling through different dimentions of thought.

    To Mike Gs comments (always a releif to hear a completly different reaction to the group) But I felt a twinge of disturbance when Sarah slightly betrayed her daughter to Tony and felt puzzeled by the wave….was she being nice, was she lonely and paying the boy this extra attention? This scene most definatly established for me the possibility of the mothers pain and the possibility of her seeking sex to alleiviate it.

    I do love your comment on adrienne being a smart ass and felt disbeleif with the idea that Anyone would assign Tony blame…that felt a bit pathalogical, but then some of the element did feel pathalogical.

    • Thanks Jacqueline for a thoughtful response. I agree re Sarah and her attitude to her daughter. And we didn’t know enough o unpack that because we are seeing it all through Tony’s eyes. I think that’s one of the great things about the book … Its limited perspective. It makes reading it such a fun challenge because we all interpret Tony’s interpretation!

  26. sm1 wrote dat it is not a grt story bt d way its told s brilliant. agreed. dats d work of Barnes. d memory v build around ourselves shattering d embarrassing parts is entirely diff 4m what d real history usually s. dats vat TSOAE is all abt. checking ur past. checking ur memory wronged wid nostalgia…

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