The Sense of Ending: in praise of the concise novel

51hhJ8IdqyLDisappearing into Julian Barnes’s 2011 Booker prize-winning novel, The Sense of an Ending was so pleasurable an experience that I read his short 163 page novella twice.

This is rare for me. I don’t read many books more than once. They have to really intrigue and beguile me to encourage a second reading.

So I can add The Sense of An Ending to a narrow list of twice or even thrice-read books that includes JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, the George Orwell novels Coming up for Air, 1984 and Keep the Aspidistra Flying and E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India.

In each book, I found a central character whose view of the world I identified with, or with whom I made a connection in some meaningful way, or whose life I wanted to step into, even for just a little while: a chance to be angst-ridden teenage rebel and narrator of Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield wondering the streets of Manhattan, having conversations with nuns and prostitutes, or rotund London insurance salesman George Bowling in Coming up for Air who escapes to the country town of his youth, before the bombs of WW2 fall, or idealistic, starving and self-destructive poet, Gordon Comstock in Keep the Aspidistra Flying.

In The Sense of an Ending I instantly liked and identified with Tony Webster, the 60-year-old divorced former arts administrator who has succeeded in living a life of little bother or regret, who does not fantasise “a markedly different life from the one that has been mine”.

Webster has accepted a modestly successful and peacable existence in a small London flat with his affairs neatly in order. He’s even on good terms with his ex-wife Margaret.

I’ve made my will; and my dealings with daughter, son-in-law, grandchildren and ex-wife, are, if less than perfect, at least settled. Or as I have persuaded myself. I’ve achieved a state of peaceableness or peacefulness. Because I get on with things. I don’t like mess and I don’t like leaving a mess.

But then he is forced to re-evaluate things – love, friendship, memory, the decisions he made and their consequences – when he receives an unexpected bequest from a woman he’d met only once, 40 years earlier.

She is Sarah Ford, the recently deceased mother of his college girlfriend, Veronica, who has bequeathed him £500 as well as the diary of his erudite, brilliant school friend, Adrian Finn, who committed suicide while at college and whose passing was described in the Cambridge Evening News under the headline: “Tragic Death of Promising Young Man”.

Adrian dated Veronica soon after Tony’s relationship with her ended. Having parted ways angrily via a dreadful, hurtful letter Tony, went travelling and in the days before email and mobile phones, only found out about his friends death many weeks later, when he returned home.

Tony’s mother wonders if Adrian killed himself “because he was too clever”. Tony comes to the conclusion that Adrian, who had great powers of reason and an amazing intellect, had come to the logical conclusion that he should end his life.

But then comes the promise of the diary, a way into his deceased friend’s mind and for Tony, who doesn’t like loose ends, the prospect of a definitive answer: a way to make sense of Adrian’s ending.

The only problem is his still very angry ex-girlfriend Veronica: she has the diary and won’t give it to him.

Instead she feeds him an extract with a complex maths equation that Tony must unravel.

In doing so he confronts his own decision to accept the path of an uneventful, non-confrontational life with no loose ends or complications, he begins to unravel the mystery of himself.

If this doesn’t quite explain why I like Tony so much (people who know me might say he and I have a lot in common)  then I think this observation in a review of the book in the New York Times explains it rather well:

Barnes’s unreliable narrator is a mystery to himself, which makes the novel one unbroken, sizzling, satisfying fuse. Its puzzle of past causes is decoded by a man who is himself a puzzle.

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