Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

25 Jan 2013

(Novel) The Sense of an Ending by: Julian Barnes

(Reaction) Tell Me a Story by: Antonio Conejos

The Sense of an Ending is a tormented novel, its principal character Tony Webster is racked by alternating spasms of guilt, anger, indignation and remorse. To what balm does Tony turn to cure these emotional ailments? He wants to know that these torments have a purpose, that their fall in his life has meaning. As such he seeks a story, the ordered and intentional arrangement of events, to make sense of it all.

This desire for meaning through narrative, of relevance through conscious history, is at the heart of Sense of an Ending.

Tony has always fancied that he lived in a story, that life was better seen as a deliberate story. This was another of our fears: that Life wouldn't turn out to be like Literature... What was the point of having a situation worthy of fiction if the protagonist didn't behave as he would have done in a book?

Indeed, our narrator explicitly models his life on story, I shall live as people in novels live and have lived.

This desire for a personal narrative worthy to be called a story is reflective of Tony's belief that narrative imposes meaning on events, that history can find purpose in the random occurrences of living.

Even the title of the novel (Sense of an Ending) is about the interplay of narrative (an ending) enforcing meaning (sense) on time (again, an ending).

There is a suggestion that one's life is only real or of worth when it is fashioned into a story by others. As such Tony notes the decline of self worth is directly proportional to the number of people who are aware of one's story, as the witnesses to your life diminish, there is less corroboration, and therefore less certainty, as to what you are or have been.

However the narrator is also keenly aware of the intrinsic frailty of stories - that all stories are inherently constructs reflective of bias and subjectivity. Stories by their nature are manipulated strings of facts strung together by someone. Tony even admits to actively manipulating his own story, of making deliberate alterations to his history, I wrote Veronica out of my life story... it was easy to give this version of my history because that's what I'd been telling myself anyway. I viewed my time with Veronica as a failure... and expunged it from the record.

Quite clearly then, as the characters themselves point out as school boys, any story, whether it be history or one's own story, cannot be taken as gospel truth.

Another suspect aspect of history, or of finding meaning in narrative, is the essentially unknowable components which make up a story. We live in time, it bounds us and defines us, and time is supposed to measure history isn't it? But if we can't understand time, can't grasp its mysteries of pace and progress, what chance do we have with history - even our own small, personal, largely undocumented piece of it?

Given the above the early proposition of narrative bringing forth meaning would seem to be highly suspect. All stories are innately untrue at one point or another, shaped by points of view, misremembered facts, wishful thinking.

Tony himself is aware of this, our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but - mainly - to ourselves.

Yet despite the inherent limitations of story though Tony still craves one; specifically one that will make sense of the one mystery of his life (the ultimate source of all his anguish) that he has never been able to shake.

Adrian's suicide was a shock to all of them, not least of all to Tony who idolized his friend. For Adrian was the brightest of them and the best, he who seemed to see most clearly and was most deliberate of action. For Tony, Adrian's suicide is scandalous in its lack of purpose, in its seeming randomness. It is an act reminiscent of Robson's artless suicide during their childhood; a death they had mourned but also passed of as wasted.

Ironically it is Adrian himself he instill this desire for meaning in the narrator, Adrian, however, pushed us to believe in the application of thought to life, that principles should guide actions. Thus the narrator's obsession with his deceased friend is implicitly brought about, sanctioned, by the object of this obsession.

Ultimately the novel itself is reflective of Tony's mania for a story that will make sense of it all. The Sense of an Ending is a jumble of different events, note how the memories on the first page (I remember, in no particular order:) can be found interspersed, but not chronologically, throughout the novel. It's as if the novel is Tony's construct, complete with all the failings and biases of history.

The story which Tony is seeking is the novel itself; but does it shed meaning, as Tony hopes it will, on Adrian's death? That depends on how one appreciates the ending.

Review:

An ok novel but I didn't think it deserved to win the Booker (maybe to be long listed at best).

There are some artful flourishes in the novel, how it begins with memories which can be found scattered throughout the book, this recollection and scattering perfectly exemplifying capricious recollection as well as introducing the important characters and themes of the novel. (Note that all the memories - except one - pertain to Tony's memories of Veronica. The only memory which is not Tony's is the last one of Adrian in his tub with the water gone cold, a memory he only conjured from the descriptions of the event chronicled by newspapers.)

I liked as well how as Tony gets older he can never seem to remember who he's alluding to and quoting . It always simply becomes, some Englishman or someone once said; until finally it becomes, who said that thing. This is marked contrast to the Tony of youth who could cite philosophers and authors. Thus the voice of the narrator is a subtle clue of his age.

Overall though the book seemed to me to be self indulgent. Another novel featuring an erudite gentleman reflecting on matters. There is nothing wrong with these types of literary, self referential novels which feature the salvific nature of narrative; implicitly sanctioning a book worm's desire to read more, always more. In truth I don't mind reading them, they are quiet books, meant to be pondered and weighed.

But to win the Booker? I would not have guessed that ending.

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