The end of life, writes Barnes, does not come with death; it has to do with the realization that you can no longer change anything, yet are partly to blame for harm done. The result: “There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest.”
A Sense of an Ending (Jonathan Cape, Random House) won the Man Booker Prize 2011 and is typical for its author and his elegant reflective prose. The idea behind Barnes’ book is exploring the way in which memory betrays us, or rather how we choose to selectively remember our past, depending on the circumstances of our present and the direction of our future.
The book opens with a school scene: three boys, friends, Tony, the narrator, and his buddies Colin and Alex. Adrian Finn makes the fourth. He is new, strange by reason of his intelligence and earnestness, doesn’t really fit, but he is accepted, since Tony, especially, likes him. They grow up, go to university, remain friends. That is also the time when they begin to fall in love, and as it often happens at that age, the girl Tony goes out with, Veronica, ends up falling for Adrian. Tony is upset, writes an angry letter, leaves for the United States and, as is to be expected, finally gets over it. Upon his return, he learns that Adrian has committed suicide. There is no indication that this might have had something to do with his love affair or his disappointed friendship—it had probably to do with how earnest he was about everything, Tony’s mother says, that’s it, no follow-up, youth is like that, things end before they have begun, and life goes on.
Several years later, a lawyer’s letter and a small inheritance brings Veronica back into Tony’s life. Tony is in the meantime retired—his life has not been bad but also not remarkable in any way: he has had a reasonably successful career, is still friends with his ex-wife and has a daughter. He meets up with Veronica and realizes she is angry with him. There are so many things he doesn’t understand and will never understand, she says. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, since she refuses to explain. Little by little, he discovers the real story behind Adrian’s suicide and how it had indirectly also to do with him as well as with the sad circumstances of Veronica’s family life, which Tony, as a young man, had failed to recognize.
A Sense of an Ending is a man’s book in that it is full of regrets about failure to understand women—and there is definitely something worth exploring in this idea, and even more so in the book’s seminal concept about selective memory. Yet the plot hides more than it gives away and is not really convincing. Can you really justify so much regret alone for having once written an angry letter? And can Tony really be blamed for not realizing, in his early twenties, that his girlfriend’s family, which he only met once, was seriously dysfunctional?
The book fits in the genre of old age fiction written by older men—a genre which is currently on the rise for obvious demographic reasons since several well-known male fiction writers have now embarked on their life’s finale and seem obsessed with the fact. Yet until now, nothing outstanding has come out of this fiction genre. Julian Barnes’ ideas are good; the prose is wonderful and even emotionally vibrant; but the plot is too constructed, and the complexity of the characters, whilst hinted at, is not crafted well enough.