Julian Barnes: The Sense of an Ending (2012)

The Sense of an Ending

When I posted my 20 under 200 list last week, Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending was the novel that was mentioned the most and, so, I decided to pick it as the first novel of my project.

I don’t think, I have to write a lengthy summary as many other bloggers have done so already. Just a few words. The narrator, Tony, is in his 60s and looking back on his life. While most of that life is painfully average and there’s not a lot to say about it, his early youth is scrutinized and described in detail. This scrutiny serves a purpose. His past has come back to haunt him and Tony tries to uncover what exactly happened all those years ago, only to find out, his memory is more than a little faulty. While some people and events are still fresh in his mind, a lot has undergone a transformation and changed so much, that the actual events and the remembered events have but little in common.

I loved the way the narrator pieced together his memories, how he tried to make sense, and showed us how, often, we distort our memories to think better of ourselves or forget unpleasant events. I also loved the description of the four high school boys; their idealism that is always paired with more mundane occupations like chasing girls and hoping for sex.

Nonetheless, I can’t say I enjoyed this book. The voice got on my nerves. The way the narrator constantly tried to turn the reader into his accomplice by seeking reassurance, annoyed me. And I found him bland and depressing.

I also found hat there was a profound contradiction at the heart of this novel. On one side we have a very subtle analysis of memory and the tricks it plays on us; on the other side, we have a narrator who is an obtuse bore. For me, these are clearly two different people. One is the author, the other is the narrator. I really don’t think that someone who tells a story like Tony does and who lives such an uneventful life, just drifting, never striving for anything, never questioning, would come up with such amazing passages like this one:

We live in time – it holds us and moulds us – but I’ve never felt I understood it very well. And I’m not referring to theories about how it bends and doubles back, or may exist elsewhere in parallel versions. No, I mean 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. Some emotions speed it up, others slow it down; occasionally, it seems to go missing – until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return.

This doesn’t sound like our narrator. This sounds like Julian Barnes speaking.

Don’t get me wrong, this novel has a lot to offer. The portrayal of adolescent boys is spot on and endearing. The analysis of memory is fascinating and how the theme was tied into the plot was very well done. I can’t say the end surprised me, but several other revelations did. What kept me from truly enjoying it was the narrator and his way of talking to the reader.


50 thoughts on “Julian Barnes: The Sense of an Ending (2012)

    • I liked the beginnig a lot but part two not so much. The writing is superb though. Nontheless, the writer was a bit too obviously at work for my taste.

  1. I think you’re right and in most of Julian Barnes’ books I can detect his voice rather than that of his characters. Not that it stopped me from enjoying many of his books… Flaubert’s Parrot was perhaps the exception (where it’s not so much his voice, I mean).

    • I’m so glad you feel the same. I enjoyed whenever it was truly his own voice but the voice of the narrator was annoying and the switch between them … Not so sure it’s worthy of a Booker.
      The only other novel I’ve read was Flaubert’s Parrot and I liked that very much. I can see myself picking up another one.

      • If you’ve read Flaubert’s Parrot, then the next one I recommend is ‘A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters’. I also quite liked ‘Arthur and George’, though perhaps not as much as others did.

        • Thanks for the suggestion. I was tempted by Arthur and George. The Sense of an Ending had such an old fashioned feel that I’m sure he does hirstorical well.

  2. Intriguing. I don’t think I’ve read enough Barnes to comment, although my Eldest Child loved this book. But I think I might struggle like you if the writing and the character are so different.

    • I can see why one would love this but for me . . . I also had the feeling I’ve read something very similar before but I can’t remmeber what it was. Or it was narrative in a movie, a voice over.

  3. I like the idea of the 20 under 200 reading list. That’s a great way to tackle a lot of books on my bookshelf. Sometimes just organizing them in a new way helps me to refamiliarize myself with the stacks.

    On an unrelated note, I recently saw the film Testament of Youth based on Vera Brittain’s WWI memoir. I have not read her memoir, but the film made me want to delve into her life’s work. I’m sure the film had to leave out important details due to the time limitations. What a poignant (and sad) period of her life.

    • I’m glad you like the idea. I had to find a twist and books under 200 seemed feasible. Another type of theme could work well for me too.
      I need to watch that movie. The books are so moving and sad. Unbelievable how many losses she had. She must have been so strong.

  4. I too found the narrator’s voice a little tiresome at times. But the novel has its merits: as you suggest, JB is good on adolescent life & relationships. Parrot remains my favourite of his.

  5. I liked the sheer poetry of the novel though overall the book wasn’t as good as I thought it’d be. Anyway most of the Booker winning books are not as good as they are publicized to be.

    • I wouldn’t have minded so much but I felt I have so nothing in common with this narrator I didn’t want him to make commenst as if we were all the same.

    • I totally agree with you. I couldn’t remmeber your review but I decided not to link to any because there were so many. I think, only Guy’s not read it.

  6. My memory of this novel is quite hazy now, but I recall feeling a little manipulated by it. I liked the prose and the descriptions of life as an adolescent but was less enamoured with the closing sections.

  7. I found your point about the two voices very intriguing, and yes, can see what you mean. I am a big fan of Julian Barnes, but this was not my favourite of his novels. I much preferred Flaubert’s Parrot, A History of the World and Love, Etc. In those books there is often a character who lets rip with language, and that feels much more like the real Julian Barnes. Tony is too dull and careful for his literary perspective really.

    • Exactly what I thought. The narrator is too dull for the subtle analysis. I don’t see a problem in chosing your own voice, although I admire writers who can do more than one voice, but in this case the result as uneven. A bit of failure really. I loved Fluabert’s Parrot so much that I’m not going to give up on him.

  8. Indeed I had heard a lot about this book.

    The appealing thing about it is that as I am looking back at events from a time when I was very young I too am thinking about how memory might not be playing one hundred percent fair with me.

    I can understand how the incongruity of the voices that you allude to would mar a book like this.

    • It’s such a fascinating topic. Since I write a diary since I’m 11 years old, I sometimes come across things I do absolutely not remember or in a very different way. It’s scary sometimes.
      The voice belnd din’t work for me but more than that I wasn’t keen on such a boring main character.

  9. How interesting–both the sound of the book and your reaction to it. I have never read Julian Barnes, though I have a couple of his books, including this one. I like the sound of the story and it almost sounds like something I might relate to–the idea of looking back on life and not having much to say about it–I am curious what I would think and as it is a short book will get to it eventually. I often wonder where an author’s ‘voice’ ends and a character’s begins! Sounds like it is more obvious here than in other books.

    • I’m sure you’d like Fluabert’s Parrot and I’m equally sure you’d like this to some extent. He writes well, not doubt about that but the bets parts cannot be the narrator reasoning, it’s clearly Barnes himself. The narratir really is so dull. Not just an average person but much duller. If he’d been someone who failed in his life, that would have worked but he was just somene who drifted without ambition or dreams and if it wasn’t for one or two people and what happened – he’d be even duller. But it’s short. You might read it like a long short story. I’d love to hear what you think of it.

  10. Nice review, Caroline. I loved your comment about how the narrator’s voice sometimes seems like the author’s voice and it sounds so contradictory. I think most of Julian Barnes’ books are like that. I have read four of them till now and what I discovered in all of them was that at some point, Barnes doesn’t care much about the plot and goes on and on about what he wants to talk about. I loved his book ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’, but I wouldn’t even consider it a novel – the plot can be written in two pages. The rest of the book is Barnes’ love letter to Flaubert, and the plot and the characters be damned. His memoir ‘Levels of Life’ was supposed to be his tribute to his wife, but for half of the book, he talks about how people flew balloons in the nineteenth century. I have got used to his style now, though, and I just ignore the plot and the characters and just read Barnes’ thoughts on different topics. I have loved all his books that I have read till now. ‘The Sense of an Ending’ is one of the better ones with respect to plot. Glad to know that though you didn’t enjoy the confusion between the narrator’s voice and the author’s, you liked the beautiful passages in the book. Loved your review 🙂

    • Thanks, Vishy. I remember you liked it more than I did but I still found a lot to admire. That comment about the book about his wife that was mostly about flying baloons really cracked me up.
      I loved Flaubert’s Parrot. I’m wondering if I wouldn’t enjoy Arthur & George. Did you read that? I also wonder why he didn’t write creative nonfiction. I think he’d be great at it. 🙂
      Which was your favourite?

      • Yeah, the flying balloons part puzzled me – it was quite enjoyable to read though. Nice to know that you liked ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’. I loved what you said and I agree with you – I think Barnes would be great at creative nonfiction. I think my favourite of his books has to be either ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’ or ‘Nothing to be Frightened Of’ (his contemplation on death). I haven’t read ‘Arthur and George’ but I have it in my shelf. I hope to read it one of these days. Going by my past reaction to Barnes’ books, think I will like it too 🙂

        • Since I loved FLuabert’s Parrot so much I’ll follow your suggestion and will read Frightened Of next. Well, it seems he dos write creative nonfiction then. I wasn’t aware. I’m sure he’s good at that.
          I’d like to read about the baloons too. 🙂
          This just remind me – We have this new tourist attaction here – a Zeppelin cruises over the city. Even the cat was startled. 🙂

  11. I have yet to read a Julian Barnes novel, but have been wanting to for some time. From what I’ve seen on other reviews, including yours, he’s a consummate prose stylist. This specific novel interests me because of the topic. I have found, of late, that events in my life have disappeared into the tunnel of time much too quickly for my peace of mind, and also, not quite as I remembered them. So I feel some kinship with the protagonist of this novel.

    Since I have recently revived my literary fiction/nonfiction blog, I will definitely add this novel to my list of books to read. Thanks for your very interesting review, which has prompted me to do this! 🙂

    • He’s an amazing stylist and the topic of this novel speaks to us all, to some extent. I keep a diary and when I go back I often gasp. Even though I write it doen at the moment, it undergoes distortions/trasnformations.
      I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this.
      Glad you’e reviving your blog. 🙂

      • Thanks! Yes, this is indeed a fascinating topic. On a several occasions, one of my sisters has reminded me of some event in the past, and I have looked at her in shock and said, “That’s NOT the way it happened!” She, of course, has insisted that it DID happen that way…..

        Interesting that you’ve kept a diary since you were 11. I admire your persistence!! 🙂

        • I can’t help it. It’s just my way to process things. 🙂
          I had similar experiences when I compared memories with my parents ( I have no siblings) -It was often astonishing how we remembered two different things. A bit scary, really-

  12. I liked it more than you, but it is manipulative (it sets out to be so not sure if that’s a flaw, save that where it gets noticed it necessarily becomes so). More to the point though you’re spot on with respect to the issue that the author’s voice and the character’s voice are merged (as it’s the character’s narrative) but rendered incredible as a result (as the character isn’t an award-winning novelist).

    My review of this still regularly gets massive numbers of hits. Yours may be similar. A lot of people seem to treat it as a mystery novel, which to me fundamentally misses the point.

    • A mystery novel? That’s stretching it. I don’t think I get that many hits but I didn’t check. When you posted yours it was still a topic that was discussed.
      I’m not keen on manipulation but the merging of the voices bugges me more. I suspect, as great a writer he is in many ways, voice isn’t his forte. He’s only got the one – his.

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