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The Sense of an Ending

May 19, 2020

IMG_3960Finally it’s warmed up enough to sit outside and read; on Saturday afternoon the sun came out over Ohio and it was excrutiatingly lovely, with azaleas blooming and the breeze scattering apple blossom petals across the deck. I picked out The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes to read outside, as I recently saw someone say “it’s exquisite…perfect.” Perhaps they meant a perfect portrait of selfishness; I found it mawkish, narrated by a self-absorbed baby boomer.

The title of Barnes’ novel is not only a reference to Frank Kermode’s 1967 lecture series entitled The Sense of an Ending, but also to the time period in which the novel is set. Here’s yet another book by a person who came of age in the sixties, narrated by a character who at least realizes that he was born at a time when “you somehow assumed that a decent degree would ensure a decent job, sooner or later.”

The narrator, Tony, surmises that because his college girlfriend didn’t communicate well with him and started dating one of his friends after their breakup that she must have suffered some kind of damage growing up. He believes that “we all suffer damage….How could we not, except in a world of perfect parents, siblings, neighbours, companions?” Despite the fact that he marries and has a child, Tony continues to obsess over the college girlfriend, Veronica. He spent one weekend at her house with her family and it colors the rest of his life, although it’s not clear why because nothing much happens. He makes much of small gestures, like that Veronica’s mother flips an egg into the trash can after breaking the yolk.

Some of the narrator’s musing is interesting, like that “this may be one of the differences between youth and age: when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others.” But the details he obsesses over are not as interesting to readers as they are for him, especially because he can never ask anyone straight out what they’re thinking. He seems to prefer to wonder.

After wondering for a while, the narrator begins to remember things he had forgotten, as if he’s filling in the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. On the very first page, we’re told that he remembers “in no particular order:
–a shiny inner wrist;
–steam rising from a wet sink as a hot frying pan is laughingly tossed into it;
–gouts of sperm circling a plughole, before being sluiced down the full length of a tall house;
–a river rushing nonsensically upstream, its wave and wash lit by half a dozen chasing torchbeams”
The river running “upstream” is the Severn Bore, and the thing he remembers that he had forgotten is that he saw it with Veronica.

Tony creates mysteries concerning Veronica’s behavior and then sets out to solve them without asking her anything. He makes himself increasingly ridiculous and eventually even repellent with conversational remarks like “there are a lot of fat people around nowadays. Obese. That’s one of the changes since we were young, isn’t it?”

Although Tony accuses Veronica of “inability to imagine anyone else’s feelings or emotional life” it’s Tony himself who is not capable of looking at anything outside his own experience. At some point it becomes obvious to the reader that Tony is an unreliable narrator. He believes that other people are “damaged” because he is, and he spends his time trying to figure out why and how something happened in the past while being insensitive to the needs of anyone else in the present.

By the time this narrator gets to his final musings, he thinks he understands more about his life; he has finally put together what happened during and after the weekend with Veronica’s family. I think his struggle illustrates the dangers of too much time spent on introspection.

He concludes that “you get towards the end of life—no, not life itself, but of something else: the end of any likelihood of change in that life. You are allowed a long moment of pause, time enough to ask the question: what else have I done wrong?” He asks that question of himself but I would suggest that if he really wants answers, he should ask that question of someone else who could answer. What he seems to want is an outside witness to corroborate his version of events, but there’s no one else who has lived through all of these events, so in the end he is alone with his thoughts. And, presumably, whatever sperm he can produce to circle whatever drain he’s currently using.

Nothing could irritate me more right now than a beautifully-wrought story of a baby boomer attempting to craft an elegaic farewell after a long life filled with destruction, no matter how small the scale. Why should their generation get to have fully-rounded lives and leave everyone else to deal with the consequences of their actions? Perhaps we should be roused by reading this novel, taking steps to leave the world better off rather than simply sitting back to enjoy a few more nice days of sunshine and apple blossom before our own ending comes.IMG_3954

14 Comments leave one →
  1. May 19, 2020 12:17 pm

    The narrator obsesses over small affronts, nurses imaginary wounds, and fails to acknowledge that while he may be the main character in the narrative playing in his head, he is not in anyone else’s. He then arrives at the near-end of an emotionally stunted life, alone and confronted with just how impossibly wrong he has been about nearly everyone and everything.

    “How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but — mainly — told to ourselves.”

    The Sense of an Ending evoked in me the same devastating sense of loss and hopelessness that I feel when I read Joyce’s “The Dead.” I don’t know that I am roused to make the world a better place, necessarily, but works like this to force me to re-examine my own narrative. Is it true? Authentic? Or am I making sly cuts and embellishments?

    • May 19, 2020 12:23 pm

      Re: “the dangers of too much time spent on introspection”

      When my mother asked what I had been reading lately and I mentioned this book, she asked if I would recommend it. I hesitated and then said that it fell into the “navel-gazing genre” that she hadn’t seemed to care for in the past. I offered to send her American Predator, which she is now thoroughly enjoying.

      • May 19, 2020 1:41 pm

        Sorry. One more addition and I can’t seem to amend my replies. I’m not sure I’d necessarily recommend American Predator to anyone who doesn’t enjoy the true crime genre. Frankly, although it frightened me (I’m still checking door and window locks — eeek!), it was not particularly well told. Of the true crime I’ve read recently, I’d more readily recommend Lost Girls.

        • May 21, 2020 9:48 am

          I’m not a fan of crime novels. I think I used to be more of a fan of introspective novels, but I feel like that’s something for the young; that when you get older you ought to turn towards thinking more about others.
          How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts in how we tell ourselves the story of our lives? All the time, it’s true. I’m not religious, but I think that’s what the idea of hell was for–to make a person think about having to face the bad moments with no way to excuse or explain.
          The Sense of an Ending does remind me of Joyce short stories. I’ll have to reread The Dead. My particular tendency is to be like the boy in Araby.

  2. May 19, 2020 3:55 pm

    It does sound like the epitome of baby boomer thinking.
    Although, I think our generation can go too far the other way and get too wrapped up in social justice and trying to right big wrongs that are hard to tackle in a practical manner.
    We need a balance of taking care of ourselves and the world too.
    That picture is gorgeous, by the way. 🙂

    • May 21, 2020 9:50 am

      Yes, when we go too far the other way, the problems can seem overwhelming. It is hard to find a balance.
      Glad you like the picture; I took it on the day I was reading the book.

  3. May 19, 2020 5:50 pm

    I love this book, regardless of its flaws. The writing is beautiful and the whole thing was quite moving when I read it some years ago.

    • May 21, 2020 9:50 am

      I think at a different time I would have liked it better.

  4. May 19, 2020 10:25 pm

    I am a baby boomer, and I couldn’t be further from that end of the ‘literary’ spectrum if I tried – and I write mainstream literary fiction.

    I would not be able to care about beautiful writing (the sperm thing – ewww) without a plot and characters I could identify with (at least one per novel). And male introspection always makes my stomach queasy.

    I guess there are books for all kinds of us.

    • May 21, 2020 9:53 am

      I didn’t identify with the main character at all–sometimes the fun of a book like this is to start out identifying a little and then find that was a mistake and you don’t like the character, but that didn’t happen with me. The book did strike me as peculiarly male from the beginning, which is why I quoted the sperm passage.

      • May 21, 2020 12:41 pm

        It seems to me that women take men into account when they write books, but not as much the other way around. It didn’t bother me in the detective novels and mysteries I devoured as a kid; now it keeps me from reading many books written by men.

        And it makes me value my male readers, because the ones who have written reviews always mention how they didn’t think they’d like Pride’s Children,. Since I designed it to be liked by men AND women, this is a nice pat on the head.

  5. Rohan Maitzen permalink
    May 20, 2020 10:52 am

    I remember not much liking this one either but I never came up with a ‘burn’ as eloquent as this one:

    “Nothing could irritate me more right now than a beautifully-wrought story of a baby boomer attempting to craft an elegaic farewell after a long life filled with destruction, no matter how small the scale.”

    • May 21, 2020 9:54 am

      Oh my, you have made my day. Thank you for the lovely compliment!

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