The Sense of an Ending

By Julian Barnes

It’s fitting that among his cohort of celebrated peers, a now legendary generation of British literary stars including Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, and Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes is the last author standing. While never as famous as the others in the 1980s and ’90s, he is the only one of that group still writing anything worth reading.

Barnes’s low profile may be due to the fact that he has always excelled at short, elegant, very “English” fiction. In fact, English-ness and the English character is one of his abiding themes. And in The Sense of an Ending, a graceful, polished novella about a retired man looking back on his life and trying to make sense of it all, he returns to that forceful questioning of national and personal identity.

The narrator, Tony Webster, has to face an eruption from his past when he is willed the diary of a schoolmate who committed suicide decades earlier. His attempt to claim the diary, however, is frustrated by a girlfriend from the same period in his life. It’s hard to say anything more about the plot without giving too much away, since it is essentially a mystery story. Armed only with a dodgy memory (he is anxious about Alzheimer’s) and a few fragments of manuscript and testimonial “corroboration,” Tony has to navigate “time’s many paradoxes” and piece together a long-broken web of relationships.

Barnes is a master when it comes to writing in this narrow a frame. There isn’t a word out of place, and almost every sentence seems to be doing a double duty, like a poem where rhythm and sense flow seamlessly into one another. Every anecdote and aside, snatch of dialogue and observation, ties in to a single structure of motifs and concerns that have been fatefully brought together for Tony’s consideration: aging, history, memory, truth, and, stubbornly, Englishness. Called upon finally to examine his life, Tony has to come to grips with his own failings, self-delusions, intimations of mortality, and inability to be “serious about being serious.” We can’t get the past right, can never fully understand it or redeem it, but it’s still important that we try. Otherwise a sort of generational accumulation of bad blood builds up, misery like a defective genetic strain being passed down and deepening, as Larkin put it, like a coastal shelf.

The unity of the piece combined with its twist ending compel re-reading, which is a delight given the number of clues, not to mention the amount of insight and artistic effect, that one can easily miss the first time through. Barnes’s style is deceptively understated, and the perfect medium for Tony’s voice. One of the hardest narrative tricks for any author to handle is an unconsciously unreliable narrator, but Barnes triumphs here as well, leaving the reader with a sense of both resolution and uncertainty.

It’s a slim book, but you can’t ask an author for more.

Review first published August 20, 2011.

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