Book #3 for 2012: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
Some books need a good night’s sleep before I can even begin to write about them. Some books probably need even more, but I don’t have the time for that and at some point I’d start forgetting crucial details. (Who’m I kidding? With most books I start forgetting crucial details before I’ve even finished reading.)
The Sense of an Ending (named for a famous book on literary theory by the late English critic Frank Kermode) not only needed a good night’s sleep before I wrote about it but it really needs me to go over it again with the proverbial fine-toothed comb, looking for clues that will tell me that what I think happened at the end really happened. Despite its short length (I put it at 42,000 words, which is just north of novella territory), Barnes manages to pull off not one but two surprise twists in the book’s final pages, the first of which is sad and a little wrenching, the second of which takes your breath away. At least I think it did; Barnes refuses to spell out the second twist in specific detail, though he makes it clear that it’s there. But I suspect that if I go back and review certain key moments — particularly a long-forgotten drunken letter and the general timeline of certain events in the story — I’d have it down cold. There are other books to be read, though, and I may put this off for a while. I may put it off forever.
In case I’m making The Sense of an Ending sound like one of those twisty crime thrillers that slither their way into your local cinema multiplex every other week or so, it’s not. It’s the self-narrated story of a British male born probably around the same time as Barnes (1946) looking back on his life from the present, with particular emphasis on a group of friends he had met in school and on his first serious girfriend, who he ended up sharing (serially, not simultaneously) with the most brilliant of those friends, one who would probably have gone on to become one of the greatest philosopher-historians of his generation if he hadn’t suddenly, unexpectedly committed suicide while still a young man.
The suicide is the book’s central mystery, but this is not a mystery novel and the suicide goes largely forgotten for decades, until the narrator discovers that his late friend’s diary, which apparently holds clues to the reasons for his self-demise, has until recently still existed, right up until the former girlfriend decided to burn it. Much of the latter part of the book is about the narrator’s attempt to find out what the diary said and even, for reasons he doesn’t fully understand, to effect a rapprochement with the old girlfriend, something that isn’t likely to happen.
The climactic pair of twists, the second of which almost completely reverses the first, are devastating to the narrator, who is forced to see almost his entire life in a different way, one that suggests that he is not the mediocrity that he has made himself out to be for much of the book but something a little bit worse, a person who has managed to ignore the negative effects he has had on the world and the people around him. His final grasp of the truth is not so much devastating as sad, emphasizing just how empty his life and failed relationships have been up to that moment. It is the story of a life told from the wrong end of the telescope, the end from which everything starts to look very small. By the end of the book it looks very small indeed.
None of which is to say that The Sense of an Ending is a depressing or unrelievedly bleak book. Just the opposite, in fact. Barnes is a master of that mordant, acidly funny style of British humor that is so sharp and incisive that it masks the fact that just below the book’s surface is something with the bite of a shark, something that would be difficult for the reader to face if the writer hadn’t combined the cleverness and timing of a stand-up comedian with the sharply honed meat knife of a literary Jack the Ripper.