Julian Barnes: The Sense of an Ending

The Sense of an Ending is a slim novel by Julian Barnes. I don’t have much to say about the story, but I was drawn to the main character, Tony Webster.

Tony is in his sixties when he tells this story, with almost half of the book his reminiscences of certain parts of his high school days. Tony says his memory is not great, but I think that his personality doesn’t help much for the story either.

To begin with, Tony is too self-centric. In one scene in a cafe, he takes an entire hour to talk about himself and then it’s time to leave. He’s a lousy conversationalist and scarcely interested in other people. He is quick to form opinions and assign motives because he is unwilling and unable to see from their perspective. Yet, Tony is jealous and vengeful about people who don’t treat him with respect.

More broadly, there is a disconnect between what Tony aspires to be, and what he actually is. He admires original thinkers such as his classmate Adrian, he is aspirationally a thinker himself, yet his writing quotes other people rather liberally. Even the jokes in the beginning of the novel come from his classmates. His present instinct is to talk to his ex-wife Margaret whenever there is a crisis.

In high school, Tony was enamoured by literature and was afraid that he would not have a great life, that his life would become like his parents’ lives. But that’s exactly how it has turned out: he has had an ordinary job and for the most part, led an ordinary life. Why would that be? At one point during his college days, his girlfriend Veronica calls him a coward, but he calls himself peaceable instead. Perhaps that is it: he is too peaceable, too lacking in ambition. Perhaps it is worse than that: he has no qualms with and maybe even delights in the banal, such as litigating something trivial until the other side tires out. And yet the rationalization, the pretense, the cover-ups …

For all his failings, I think Tony embodies a lot of qualities all too human. I think Tony speaks for all of us when he wistfully remembers his high-school dreams, and laments about the actual reality of life as it played out. He speaks for the fear in all of us that we end up becoming mere specks of dust, dying without making a dent in the universe. He stands for our feelings of jealousy and resentment at true talent and our own imperfections; for the demons we have to continually fight inside of us.

I liked The Sense of an Ending for another reason. It is eminently quotable. Barnes’s prose is so lyrical that I can read the book any number of times simply to savor those words and sentences.

Yes, of course we were pretentious – what else is youth for? We used terms like “Weltanschauung” and “Sturm und Drang,” enjoyed saying “That’s philosophically self-evident,” and assured one another that the imagination’s first duty was to be transgressive.

This was another of our fears: that Life wouldn’t turn out to be like Literature. Look at our parents – were they the stuff of Literature? At best, they might aspire to the condition of onlookers and bystanders, part of a social backdrop against which real, true, important things could happen.

I’d met a few girls before, but either their self-assurance made me feel gauche, or their nervousness compounded my own.

She was five months older than me and sometimes made it feel like five years.

“Look, Tony,” she said. “I don’t stagnate.”

“You’re quite cowardly, aren’t you, Tony?” / “I think it’s more that I’m . . . peaceable.” / “Well, I wouldn’t want to disturb your self-image.”

But I think I have an instinct for survival, for self-preservation. Perhaps this is what Veronica called cowardice and I called being peaceable.

Some Englishman once said that marriage is a long dull meal with the pudding served first. I think that’s far too cynical. I enjoyed my marriage, but was perhaps too quiet – too peaceable – for my own good. After a dozen years Margaret took up with a fellow who ran a restaurant.

History isn’t the lies of the victors… It’s more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated.

I still play a lot of Dvorak, by the way… But Tchaikovsky has gone the way of those geniuses who fascinate in youth, retain a residual power in middle age, but later seem, if not embarrassing, somehow less relevant.

Time doesn’t act as a fixative, rather as a solvent.

I remember a period in late adolescence when my mind would make itself drunk with images of adventurousness. This is how it will be when I grow up. I shall go there, do this, discover that, love her, and then her and her and her. I shall live as people in novels live and have lived. Which ones I was not sure, only that passion and danger, ecstasy and despair (but then more ecstasy) would be in attendance. However . . . who said that thing about “the littleness of life that art exaggerates”? There was a moment in my late twenties when I admitted that my adventurousness had long since petered out. I would never do those things adolescence had dreamt about. Instead, I mowed my lawn, I took holidays, I had my life.

… I gave up on life, gave up on examining it, took it as it came. And so, for the first time, I began to feel a more general remorse – a feeling somewhere between self-pity and self-hatred – about my whole life. All of it. I had lost the friends of my youth. I had lost the love of my wife. I had abandoned the ambitions I had entertained. I had wanted life not to bother me too much, and had succeeded – and how pitiful that was. … Average, that’s what I’d been, ever since I left school. Average at university and work; average in friendship, loyalty, love; average, no doubt, at sex.

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