A story in which everything has already happened
Julian Barnes’ masterful retelling of a life lived in retrospect is also an exploration of the human desire to give life meaning and order.
Tony Webster is retired, divorced and living in and English suburb. Provoked by the death of his childhood friend, he casts a mournful look over his past in an attempt to make sense of his life. With a masterful balance of concision and intricacy, Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending is a moving story about the passage of time and the human need for structure.
With an almost Woolf-like elegance, Barnes sets out to mirror the way the past impinges on the present in the human psyche. The novella begins with Tony listing some of his memories ‘in no particular order’. He thinks of steam rising from a pan, sperm disappearing down a plug-hole and a river flowing upstream. Images such as these echo throughout the work, encapsulating the relay of memory and the way even the briefest of moments can haunt us.
While exploring such huge philosophical issues as the nature of memory and time may seem particularly ambitious for a 150-page novella, Barnes succeeds by letting his protagonist tell his own story. Tony Webster is a thinker, but he’s also an everyman. This allows the influence of philosophy to be counterweighted by a sort of shared old-age wisdom, making his journey intelligible and relatable. As he puts it, he’s only interested in ‘ordinary, everyday time’.
In the first half of the text, Tony’s quest for self-discovery takes him from his pretentious schoolboy days through to his golden years, working part-time as a hospital librarian. The short form doesn’t necessarily lend itself too well to such a long timespan and by the end of the work, there is plenty we still don’t know about the protagonist. We are left in the dark about the dissolution of his marriage and the career he only briefly mentions. Yet there is a sense that we know Tony about as well as he knows himself. He only mentions the events he chooses to remember, providing an insight into how he subconsciously edits his past.
The retrospective premise of The Sense of an Ending poses a distinct challenge in terms of plot. Everything which is to unfurl has of course already happened, yet Barnes deftly constructs a story within these confines and it comes together with a surprising amount of intensity.
One day, Tony receives a letter explaining that he is to inherit the diary of his deceased schoolfriend Adrian Finn. Confused as to why, considering the bad terms on which they parted, he should be the one to receive this precious artefact, Tony decides to get to the bottom of it. He visits old friends and relives old memories in order to uncover the secrets behind Adrian’s suicide. However, Tony’s quest for the truth leads him to rediscover parts of his past he had chosen to forget, the plot thus working backwards with the story progressing as he digs deeper into his past.
But as well as being a vehicle for drama and philosophical reflection, Tony is also very human. While Barnes’ candour can be shocking at times, as Tony will often discuss his sessions of violent masturbation, there is also tremendous longing at the heart of his character. He feels cast adrift from those around him, he worries about the inevitable humiliation of old age and thinks his daughter doesn’t trust him with the grandkids.
Admittedly, Tony does sometimes seem like a stereotypically grumpy old man: in one of the book’s finest moments he even argues with bar staff over the legitimacy of their ‘hand-cut chips’. Yet his story is more about coming to terms with the passing of time than it is about dealing with old age. For all his curmudgeonly gripes, all Tony wants is to find meaning and order in his life.
The Sense of an Ending is a delicate mix of meditation, plot and portraiture. By maintaining this balance, Barnes manages to probe hefty philosophical issues in a manner that is engaging but poignant. In doing so, he has produced a novel that is both an incisive exploration of human memory and a tragic tale told backwards.