Monday, October 17, 2011

Review: The Sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes)

In recent years, a certain type of literary fiction has become in fashion.  An elderly narrator recalls the story of his life (and I say "his" because these do tend tend to be books by men), beginning in youth and moving forward.  The narrator's purpose, perhaps only vaguely sensed by the reader at first, is to make sense of some particular "event" that formed a turning point in his life.  The nature of that event will only become clear toward the end of the novel.  When it does, it drives home the point that memory is fallible: it consists of stories we tell to make sense of our lives, but that do not always correspond to to fact.

This isn't new stuff: Proust understood as much, and since the 1990s it has been a hot topic in psychology, criminal science, and other disciplines.  But it's also rich a vein for writers to explore.  I am sure you can think of several examples -- the ones that come to my mind include The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, The Sea by John Banville, Out Stealing Horses by Per Pettersen, and now, The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes.

The Remains of the Day, of course, won the Booker Prize in 1989, The Sea won the Booker in 2005, and The Sense of an Ending is being tipped as the frontrunner for the 2011 award, which will be announced later tomorrow.  If Pettersen had been a citizen of the British Commonwealth or Ireland, he no doubt would have been a contender as well.

I will say this: Barnes is the best writer about old age that we have today, far better than the repetitive, randy, Philip Roth.  As his narrator, Tony Webster, delves into his past in 1960s England to make sense of a friend's suicide, Barnes (finally) shows that he is a master of such old-fashioned skills as atmosphere and plot.  In short, I found this slim novel very difficult to put down; indeed, I nearly finished it in one sitting.  But was it great?  Barnes is treading territory that has been well-covered before, and he fails to use the device to connect to the greater concerns of, say, The Remains of the Day.

I've not yet read any of this year's other Booker contenders, so I can't say whether Barnes deserves the nod this year.  I will say that this book is a fine way to spend an evening, and one that will leave you thinking about your own memories for some time after.

UPDATE: It has just been announced that Julian Barnes has won the Man Booker Prize for The Sense of an Ending.  Congratulations!

Related Posts:
Fall Reading List
Quote from "Out Stealing Horses"


  1. Good review. I've read a number of these types of books myself, and would pay money not to have to read another "old polemic" by Roth or Updike. I'm intrigued to see if DeLillo will ever explicitly tackle the subject.

    Personally, i haven't read any Barnes for years (I'm a big fan of History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters mainly because his books became too ramblely. I'll add this to the wishlist!

  2. Thanks for leaving a comment on my blog about this book. I agree with you this isn't a great book certainly not the same standard as The Remains of the Day. However, it was riveting and really leaves so much food for thought that I think it definitely deserved the Booker win. You asked what I meant by the ending is 'open to interpretation.' What I meant is that everyone will have a different take on it and that's exactly what Barnes wanted I think. It's kind of like that movie Cache (Hidden) by Michael Haneke. If you haven't seen this, then you must. In an interview, Haneke said that if you are still trying to figure out who the culprit is then you're missing the entire point of the film.

  3. Mrs. B. -- thanks for dropping by! I don't know the movie, but I will check it out.

    Incidentally, I found an old interview with Julian Barnes over at The Paris Review. In it, he reminisces that, "I remember at school in the sixties we were being taught Ted Hughes by our English master, who was a bright young man just down from Cambridge. . . . He said, Of course everyone’s worried about what happens when Ted Hughes runs out of animals. We thought it was the wittiest thing we had ever heard. But of course Ted Hughes never did run out of animals; he may have run out of other things, but not animals."

  4. I've never actually read Julian Barnes, which seems a shame now. I"ll have to remedy that soon. And I couldn't agree more with you about Philip "wah, wah, it's so hard to be a white man. Life is hard" Roth.

  5. Depending on your tastes, of course, I'd start with Arthur & George.

    The only one you should really pass on is England, England. I found it awful.

  6. Hi Joel,
    I hadn't realized there were so many books with reminiscing themes. Interesting observation about such books winning the Booker(especially now when Barnes has also won it :)
    Am following your blog now.

  7. Nivedita - I do suspect a connection to all the work that is being done on memory in the social sciences. Not that an author necessarily consciously chooses the theme for that reason. But it's in the air. Thanks for coming by and for following our blog!

  8. just got to reading this one... i almost read it twice, in fact. the first part of the book was slow going for me, but it really picked up steam as the book progressed. i thought barnes had a nice way of pushing you to guess what he would write next.

    in the end, i didn't feel as though there were unanswered questions. i felt as though tony was an incredibly self-absorbed, meek character... one who worked as hard as he could to properly establish the sense of his own ending, or the lasting impression each person in his life would have, even if it was unnderwhelming... as long as it was slightly positive. it wasn't until he stepped in it at the end, until he finally figured it out that he realized other people actually exist... and while his life hadn't been drawn outside the lines much, there were some truly extraordinary and terrible things going on all around him, all along.

    a bit of a sad ending, if you ask me... but at least 'ol Tony figured it out before his life had completely passed by.