The Sense of an Ending
“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—to ourselves.” ― Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending
At the end of Part One of this short novel the narrator, Anthony (Tony) Webster, says "I survived. 'He survived to tell the tale' --that's what people say.". In this novel one learns to be skeptical about the tale that Tony tells about his life. Slowly, inexorably one begins to realize that events that Tony relates may not have happened quite the way he remembers. This makes the novel more interesting, and more frustrating, than it might otherwise have been.
This is a short novel; on that everyone seems to agree. Beyond that it is a compelling read that is written well, owing its brevity to the paucity of details about Tony and his life. Part One tells of his school years wherein he and his two pals, Colin and Alex, are augmented by the arrival of Adrian Finn. Adrian becomes an important part of the story and in Part Two his importance grows. However, in the preface to Tony's schooldays he warns the reader that he will share "a few incidents that have grown into anecdotes, to some approximate memories which time has deformed into certainty. If I can't be sure of the actual events any more, I can at least be true to the impressions those facts left. That's the best I can manage."(p 2) Do these impressions provide any real sense of the reality of Tony's life? I will let other readers answer that for themselves.
Tony's story becomes a tale about memory, aging, time, and remorse. But the remorse is based on what Tony believes happened and that, unfortunately, is based on the story that he tells himself which has gaps that come back to haunt him. I hesitate to share many details of the plot for this is where the book is most interesting. It is so because of the unreliability of the narrator and the mysteries that ensue; mysteries that Tony pursues in part two only to be rebuffed by his first love and by his own blindness to the details and facts that his memory has somehow elided from his impressions.
For the reader this story can be comforting, for who has not forgotten the details of past events that once important have long ago faded into ineffable impressions? But it is also disturbing because you are carried along with Tony and only late in the book begin to discover his shortcomings as a truth-teller, or the difference between what may have really happened and the impressions to which he claims to be true. Tony alternatively claims to envy the "clarity" of the life of his friend Adrian while apologizing to his first love, Veronica, all the while oblivious to the reality which leads her to claim that "he just does not get it". That idea pervades most of Part Two and leads the reader to question the sense of the ending of The Sense of An Ending.
In spite of the brevity of this novel, or perhaps because of it, the reader may appreciate the situations that suggest the vagaries of memory and the devilish disappointments that may result. Tony admits as much when he says:
"What had Old Joe Hunt answered when I knowingly claimed that history was the lies of the victors? 'As long as you remember that it is also the self-delusions of the defeated.' Do we remember that enough when it comes to our private lives?"(p 133)
Julian Barnes is the author of Flaubert's Parrot and other novels. He received the Mann Booker prize in 2011 for The Sense of An Ending.