Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Making Sense of Barnes' Ending

Yesterday I read Julian Barnes' slender novel The Sense of an Ending in a few hours.  It would have taken me less long, had I not kept putting down the book and muttering things to myself like, "whatever happened to 'show; don't tell'?"

Or: "Are Barnes and Ian McEwan actually the same person?" (Does Tony "atone" for anything, in a nod to McEwan's Atonement?)

Or: "Is this the Downton Abbey of literature where entire decades are erased to get to the next plot point?"  Annie, anyone?  Margaret and Susie? I was waiting for Cousin Matthew to make an appearance.

Finally, I took another look at the cover, to remind myself that this novel had been awarded the Man Booker Prize.  I remembered that Anita Brookner's equally slender novel Hotel du Lac had received that honor some decades earlier in 1984, dubiously, according to various critics who couldn't imagine women at the center of a novel. Reading Barnes, I didn't care which gender; I just wanted a fully realized character.

The novel began promisingly enough, with a wink to the Brideshead Revisited genre, with a touch of Dead Poet's Society. But before all that started, Barnes' narrator listed some memories, which, if his intention was to be enigmatic, failed, as they were all quite obvious.  Just the who and why were missing.

If beginnings are obvious, endings abound.  There's the sense of an end everywhere the reader looks: from Adrian Finn's last name (fin; finis) to the missing end of the excerpt from Adrian's diary.  Middles cannot hold, as when Tony and Veronica meet at the middle of the Wobbly Bridge; but endings cannot necessarily be found.

One of the themes throughout the novel is that Tony "doesn't get it."  He doesn't, until he finally thinks he does. But does he get too much? Does history repeat itself because of his actions?  I'd say no, but that's not the point of the novel. 

It's really about how history is shaped, via documentation, voices, and actions, all of which come together to form some sort of picture. But that picture can be fragile, like a egg, which Sarah Ford demonstrates by sweeping a broken fried egg into a bin and starting a new, whole one. History can only be sensed, by all our sensory powers, even though, as the book shows, for some characters it can also be senseless.

Would love to have a conversation with fellow gentle readers--what did you think of this book?


materfamilias said...

It's almost two years since I read this, so I struggled to remember it enough to think through your response. Thanks for the allusions you point out and the neat observations that make me want to reread. Until I do, I'd hesitate to say much about it, but I did write a bit about it on my reading blog, way back when:
I've just read Barnes' Levels of Life -- a slight book that's brilliant and devastating, imo.. .

GSL said...

I found it to be an interesting if unconventional piece of storytelling. It was a bit unsatisfying as you mention but much in the same way life often is so that's where it succeeded in my view. I really liked 'Arthur & George'.

GSL said...

Many thanks Miss C for prompting me to re-read this slender novel which I now consider a masterpiece. My 2nd reading was more focused and I was richly rewarded for it. I found it beautifully written and densely packed with deep meaning and astute observations... I'll never think of hand-cut chips in the same way again.

Miss Cavendish said...

GSL, I am glad that your second reading was fruitful. I'm sure I'll return to Barnes' novel myself, perhaps by putting it in one of my classes . . .