Case study, tribute, answer, or meditation?–Julian Barnes’s “The Sense of an Ending”

A month or so ago, I wrote a post on William Trevor’s book of short stories “After Rain,” and referenced in relation to it the fine scholar Frank Kermode’s critical work first published in 1967, The Sense of an Ending.  You may imagine my perplexity when I discovered on my library website a fairly new book, published in 2011, by Julian Barnes, a novel of sorts also called The Sense of an Ending.  My perplexity was mainly because at no point in the opening pages of the book and nowhere within is Frank Kermode given a nod for his work, except in the overall sense that it becomes overwhelmingly obvious by the end of the book that it is a sort of case study of, answer to, tribute to, or meditation upon Kermode’s work.  Perhaps it is all of these.  At any event, Julian Barnes won the 2011 Man Booker prize and was nominated for other awards for this work, so Wikipedia’s confidence that the book is at least a “meditation” upon Kermode’s thesis seems well-founded, because the publicity attendant upon such fame would make it unlikely that the book could be seen otherwise.

To reiterate Frank Kermode’s notion, that humans, being uncomfortable with their short life span, have to imagine themselves as part of a historical curve of a sort of golden age in the past, to which their own lives are the present leading to an important future, is to deal with many imponderables, and yet it certainly makes sense in the way Barnes envisions it.  Barnes is in fact doing in a work which isn’t entirely novel-like what Kermode says critics must do:  whereas poets help to make sense of the way we see our lives, critics must help make sense of the ways in which we try to make sense of our lives.

The main character, the narrator, Tony Webster, tells a story in two parts in which he is engaged in the first part in telling about his younger years with his friends Alex, Colin, and Adrian, and his failed romance with Veronica (Mary), whose mother also comes into the story.  Later, Adrian writes to tell Tony that he and Veronica are now together, and Tony responds.  Then, Adrian commits suicide not long after another apparently less vital and virile classmate has done the same thing.  The remaining three friends engage in the same sort of philosophical speculation about why Adrian did it that they had shared as intellectually gifted students.  In the second part, we see Tony much later, as a retired man who has since been married to someone else, produced offspring, and been cordially divorced.  He is now reevaluating the earlier years because Veronica’s mother dies and leaves him a diary of Adrian’s; Veronica, however, is in between Tony and the bequest, and prevents him from a complete reading of the diary.  It is in dealing with her as someone who still parallels him in age that he questions himself and thinks about his past in a radically different way than he traditionally has.

“You get towards the end of life–no, not life itself, but of something else; the end of any likelihood of change in that life.  You are allowed a long moment of pause, time enough to ask the question:  what else have I done wrong?”  This is the almost casually stated thesis of Barnes’s work, not casual in the sense of its eventual importance, but in the way he slips it into the woof and weave of many other questions and ponderings about history and in particular personal histories.  For example, from his boyhood days, come memories of hilarity in the classroom at a dullard who, when asked what happened in a historical period of complexity, answers:  “There was unrest,” and when prodded to comment further, goes on to say, “There was great unrest, sir.”  Yet, this comment comes back with some significance to haunt Tony as an older man.  In the last paragraph of the book, he states, “There is accumulation.  There is responsibility.  And beyond these, there is unrest.  There is great unrest.”

That Barnes has pointed out time as one of his avowed subjects is clear from the first, when he says, “We live in time–It holds us and moulds us–but I’ve never felt I understood it very well.”  He elaborates, “ordinary everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly:  tick-tock, click-clock.  Is there anything more plausible than a second hand?  And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time’s malleability.”  What is as malleable as time, apparently, or as a result of time, is memory, which lives in and changes with time, for Tony is suddenly shocked by a picture of his younger self in a letter which Veronica does return to him with a few of the diary pages before burning the rest.

And yet there is further shock to come–I will not ruin the surprise near the end of the book, for though this is a serious literary endeavor and not a suspense novel, there is a twist near the end which underlines many of the points that Tony gradually becomes aware of as he re-thinks his earlier history.  Suffice it to say that the novel is a very good book in this reader’s opinion, and one well worth the Man Booker Prize.  And I like to think that Frank Kermode might find it a fitting tribute (case study? answer? meditation?) as well.


Filed under Articles/reviews, Literary puzzles and arguments, What is literature for?

8 responses to “Case study, tribute, answer, or meditation?–Julian Barnes’s “The Sense of an Ending”

  1. Sounds like a fascinating book. So does the one under the original title!


    • Some feel that Barnes’s book is too facile and short to stand up for itself, but I don’t believe anyone doubts the value and worth of Kermode’s book. It’s widely regarded as one of the best critical books of the 20th century, and I have to say that even though that makes it sound somewhat intimidating, it’s also a very smoothly written “good read.”


      • Interesting, Victoria. I may have to add it to the list, having a taste for such criticism. Am rereading How Fiction Works and think it might join the ranks of such classics.


  2. I have dabbled with Kermode in the library but nothing recently, my first inclination would be to read him before this book. I have never tackled any Barnes but I have heard a few less than complimentary reviews of his most recent books, so the jury remains out for me…


    • A knowledgeable friend of mine found the ending “contrived,” but I found that for my tastes, it fit nicely. I mean, how many times has something that seemed ludicrous or silly in the past come back to haunt us later with a subtler meaning, or something that seemed significant in the past (vice-versa) later come to seem relatively unimportant? I really quite liked the novel, even though it isn’t exactly shaped like a standard novel.


      • I shall add the novel to the list, my oh so long list! I think I would be more inclined to go with your thoughts, it is intriguing how things come together in life.


  3. Jeff

    I love the comment about unrest. I recall marking students’ work that would say something like ‘the author says that this situation creates problems.’ I would comment something like ‘and what are those problems?’ There is in the problems, just as with the unrest, a sense that something is there at the edge of understanding. Isn’t this the imponderables you write of? Learning means crossing those edges of understanding into things more particular, so I wonder what Kermode and Barnes offer as crossings, if anything?


  4. Hi, Jeff! Welcome. I’m very flattered to have you as a reader. I guess I would say that to my mind, there are imponderables that don’t give way to learning as much as to a developed understanding that for some people (like Kermode) comes from having dealt with the learned all his adult life (dealing with learned writers, as you have already pointed out in your discussion of “metatwaddle,” is often a process of translation that defies simple knowledge), and for Barnes, comes from “playing a riff” on his own interpretation of Kermode. And per your discussion of “Plagiarism as an Art Form,” before I read the complete Barnes novel, and because Kermode’s book has been so well-known since the mid-sixties of the last century, I was almost ready to cry “Foul!” until I found out how important a writer Barnes was as well. You know the Latin phrase about “It pertains to great men to have great faults”? Well, that was my take, until I realized that Barnes was indeed writing in reference to Kermode, taking for granted (as in the heyday of modernism) that his audience would know to what and whom he referred, without an outright attribution in Foreword or Preface, or in the text. Anyway, to get back to your question about what “crossings” I think the two writers find, it’s my belief that they both show us learning as a process of becoming at last more comfortable, or more accepting, of things that originally were totally foreign to us. That’s why people get so up in the trees about what influences children and young adults are exposed to, because it’s so vitally important that they “learn” the right things, accustom themselves to good influences, as we call them. At the center of each writer’s book in this case is the issue of one’s own mortality, a moth-eaten concept in literary circles, until someone new writes something about it with a new voice. Finally, I would say that both Kermode and Barnes, even given the influence of the one upon the other, have both written with a new voice. (And as you can see, I write long answers to everything! I hope it doesn’t just seem like more “metatwaddle”! I love that expression.)


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