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.
The sense of an ending
London: Vintage, 2011