I read 2 magnificent novels recently – this year’s Booker winner The Sense of An Ending and Nicole Krauss’ Great House. I’ve never felt more intrigued or taxed as I did while trying to join the dots and weave the threads in these novels and arrive at a satisfactory ending. Even now I’m unsure whether what I understood and interpreted is really what happened. This ambiguity is part of being alive, as also part of the narrative tradition, of hearing and reading about other people’s lives, of history, and of recalling the past. Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending is about these ambiguities - the impossibility of ever arriving at the truth about certain pivotal matters in our life because the truth has long ago been distorted and destroyed. As one character puts it early on in the novel, “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation". That is why this novel possesses that rare punch to change the way one has been interpreting one’s life or going about it. That alone should quieten all those murmurs which ask whether it was a deserving winner or not.
The novel is narrated by Tony Webster, a 60-year-old retiree, who recalls the events of his life, only to discover that what he remembers and what actually happened don’t always concur: “What you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.” As Tony works his way towards an epiphany, we realize that, even at the end, one cann whot be sure that what Tony now understands, is the penultimate truth. I think that’s why this is one of the most befitting titles I’ve come across – it hints and mocks and alludes to a veil, to a mirage, that upon closer examination will cease to be and reveal a darker truth. Very few of us have the courage to actually seek an ‘ending’ to our affairs; instead, most of us are satisfied with the ‘sense of an ending’ that matters have been peacefully resolved, mortgage payments met, P/L accounts closed, children settled, and daily vitamins taken.
The narrative is prompted by Tony’s sudden receipt of a lawyer’s letter informing him that the mother of his ex-girlfriend, Veronica, (whom he hasn’t met in more than 40 years) has left him £500 and a diary. The diary belongs to Adrian Finn, a brooding intellectual schoolmate-cum-hero of Tony’s and his 3 friends who later went to study at Cambridge and shortly afterwards committed suicide at the age of 22. At that time he was married to Veronica who started dating him soon after she split with Tony. She now has the diary and though she meets him after a lot of persuasion, she refuses to give him the diary. As he probes and pushes, what he gradually discovers upsets the cart of his peaceful existence and challenges the substance of his memories.
The first part of this thin novel outlines Tony and his friends’ days at school, the simultaneously repressed and restless energy in a typical 60’s boys school, the advent of Adrian in their midst and his unique and logical way of looking at things, Tony’s brief affair with Veronica and the ill-fated weekend at her place with her family, her mother’s odd gesture under the window and even odder warning to not let Veronica get the better of him, the eventual break-up with Veronica and later knowledge that Adrian was now dating her. As he recounts these sections, he continuously retracts and casts doubt on whether he remembers things correctly and raises doubts in our minds about his reliability as a narrator. For instance, was he really snubbed and looked down upon during that long-ago weekend at Veronica’s house or did he simply project his own feelings of inadequacy onto others? Was Veronica’s mother really kind or could her behavior be ascribed to something darker? Most importantly, what role did Tony play in Adrian’s eventual suicide and the larger tragedy that unfolds in the last pages? As the novel develops, these questions haunt Tony and he seeks Veronica, who now has her husband’s diary, to find some degree of understanding and closure.
Not only this, he is forced to re-examine and reinterpret his vision of Adrian – the school chum whose intellect had always enthralled Tony. He’d earlier romanticized Adrian’s suicide as the truest manner in which one can exercise his choice in life; later, as he uncovers facts, he is forced to consider whether Adrian’s death was nothing more than a cowardly act, an inability to face up to the truth about one’s moral decrepitude.
As we veer towards the end, it does seem that the ‘ending’ is a tad contrived and one can’t be faulted for imagining that Tony’s final reading of his own role in the grand tragedy that has enfolded all their lives, is perhaps a little far-fetched. I know readers will quibble with this. I’d like to imagine that Barnes shapes his ending in this manner precisely because he wants to sow the doubt – does Tony really ‘get’ things in the end? Did things really happen the way he imagines them in the end? There’s no way of knowing and Veronica’s single stubborn accusation throughout the novel - ‘You just don’t get it’ – continues to resonate in our ears.Perhaps the best thing about reading a writer like Barnes is the complete lack of sentimentality, and his dry and mordant wit that pervades even the most poignant sections. Notice the characteristic brusque way in which he captures the essence of what it meant to be a school boy in the ‘60s, “We were book hungry, sex-hungry, meritocratic, anarchic.” One can’t help laughing as he describes the dating scene thus, “This is what used to happen: you met a girl, you were attracted to her, you tried to ingratiate yourself, you would invite her to a couple of social events - for instance, the pub - then ask her out on her own, then again, and after a good-night kiss of variable heat, you were somehow officially ‘going out’ with her. Only when you were semi-publicly committed did you discover what her sexual policy might be. And sometimes this meant her body would be as tightly guarded as a fisheries exclusion zone.”
But always beneath the wit and even tone of his prose, you come across passages which enthrall as when he writes towards the end, “And no, it wasn’t shame I now felt, or guilt, but something rarer in my life and stronger than both: remorse. A feeling which is more complicated, curdled, and primeval. Whose chief characteristic is that nothing can be done about it: too much time has passed, too much damage has been done, for amends to be made.” To me, this along with another passage is perhaps the key to the novel – the distinction between guilt and remorse and regret. A distinction we forget too easily.
Tony is a kind of Everyman – just one of us. In the beginning he tells us, “I had not wanted life to bother me too much.” He’s the kind of person who, like you may, claims, “I recycle; I clean and decorate my flat to keep up its value. I’ve made my will; and my dealings with my daughter, son-in-law, grandchildren and ex-wife are, if less than perfect, at least settled.” Sounds familiar?
Yet, it is this very man who says in the end, “You get towards the end of life: 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.” Ever since i read the novel almost 2 months ago, i’ve revisited this passage not less than 17 times and it never fails to bring the tears despite my resolve. There’s such immense empathy for mankind in his assured ‘what else’ and not ‘what have i done wrong’, that it cannot but shake you. The very idea that we are all aware of our mistakes, that we try and make amends, and yet there’s so much that we are blind to, is the keenest reminder of our frailties. This novel serves that reminder.