For some reason, I was looking to read a book that wasn’t too long. That’s part of the reason why I picked up “The Sense Of An Ending” by Julian Barnes and also because it had won the Man Booker Prize in 2011. It’s one of the shortest books to ever win that prize and I was curious about how it managed that in 160 pages.
The book is divided into 2 parts. The first part seems to be a recollection of the narrator’s memories of his 20’s and in the second part, these memories are systematically dismantled. You’d get some indication of this though, as they often talk about history and how it is remembered. That history is not just the “lies of the victor” but also the “self-delusions of the defeated”.
If you think or ever thought of yourself as an intellectual in your 20’s, you’ll find the characters instantly relatable. They talk a lot about the kind of philosophy people in their 20’s are into, most notably Albert Camus. The book is also littered with a lot of insightful observations about human relationships. A lesser writer (such as myself) could base an entire novel on one of these observations. I think that’s where the strength of this book lies, it’s not really the story or the plot or the characters that stay with you but these casual insights that just appear in every other paragraph. As one reviewer put it “Barnes’s latest—a meditation on memory and ageing—occasionally feels more like a series of wise, underline-worthy insights than a novel. But the many truths he highlights make it worthy of a careful read.”
The plot of the novel resembles real life, in the sense that there are not many extraordinary characters or circumstances. The protagonist (Tony Webster) is unremarkable and he is fairly self-aware about this. He does have one remarkable friend though, Adrian Finn. Adrian stands out in his circle of friends as a true scholar. He is not only very knowledgeable but also has the integrity to apply what he believes. Tony admires him and wants to be seen as his closest friend. The first part of the novel mainly deals with Tony and his clique of friends. A lot happens between them. A heartbreak, a pregnancy, a suicide and all of it to people you’d least expect.
In the second part of the novel, things get a lot more grim. Tony’s memories or his recollection of it are far from perfect. He wasn’t the person he thought was, his memories reveal a strong self-preservation bias. People he thought were assholes had good reason to be that way, in fact, a lot of it was his doing.
The novel is about our complicated relationship with the past and how we come to understand and reconcile with it. A few people have noted that Tony seems to be self-pitying and he has a really mistaken analysis of his friends. As the novel progresses, I think that’s part of Barnes’s point, that wisdom and self-knowledge mean nothing until we’re blessed with the distinction between the Promethean and the Epimetheus, between foresight and hindsight. The entire novel is about Tony slowly and painfully finding out this distinction for himself. I really enjoyed “The Sense Of An Ending” by Julian Barnes, it’s a quick read that says a lot about life without meandering about for a lot of pages.