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Man Booker Prize 2011: The sense of ending, Julian Barnes


Apparently this year’s Man Booker shortlist was characterised by “readability”. I find Julian Barnes a bit too literary to be truly readable. His erudition forces me to re-read whole paragraphs to check on meaning and relevance, before turning the page. True I was brought up on “the Mirror”, “the People” and “John Bull” and probably a little like Mr Barnes’ subject Tony Webster, have always been distrustful of the abstract and philosophical. So my view of what’s readable might well differ from the literary classes.

I found The Sense of an Ending (Jonathan Cape 2011) unsatisfying on many levels. Maybe it reminds myself too much of me. The first third (fifty pages long) would make a tolerably good short story; the sort of story anyone of a certain age wishes they had written. With shades of The History Boys, it is laced with snappy grammar school humour but the male characters seem singularly one-dimensional. The “awful” Veronica is much more interesting. Webster’s fumbling relationship with Veronica is critical to Part One. The denouement is that she eventually goes off with not only one of his better friends from school, Adrian Finn, but that he is of the intellectual kind and altogether both more cerebral and mysterious than Webster.


The second part, around a hundred pages long, hinges on the conceit that Veronica’s mother leaves Webster £500 and Finn’s diary in her will; a fact that is brought to his attention in his (early) retirement. This leads him on a quest which involves meeting up with Veronica (still “awful”)  who has caddishly destroyed the diary but who returns to him a letter he sent to the happy couple (Veronica and Adrian) on discovering they were an item. Dopy Tony who portrays himself throughout as a reasonable if unexceptional man, is staggered at the vehement tone and the message it carries. Of course by now Adrian has long since committed suicide, but it transpires that not only did he knock up Veronica’s mother, but that the child was born with limited intellectual capacities and now as an adult is cared for in a community home. Since Tony had cursed the couple with unhappiness to themselves and their progeny this hits him particularly hard as he is forced to rethink his view of himself.

Part Two makes a somewhat poorer short story than Part One. It reiterates certain themes, the dysfunction of memory, the vacuousness of the middle class. It is Finn who is given the leitmotif to deliver early in the book “history is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation”. It is a point hammered home mercilessly throughout and truly demonstrates what a precocious smart arse Finn is. Tony turns into a sleuth apparently modelled on William Brown. In fact Tony might be a re-incarnation of Brown; and the three other gang members, surely they can’t be the Outlaws?

Not one character in The Sense of an Ending is anywhere near fully formed. It is a book of ideas not of people. Its plot is far-fetched and its events and coincidences contrived to support an argument rather than to tell an interesting or even readable tale. To say that memory misleads is to misrepresent memory. Memory is a story book, details eroded or distorted. Sometimes it tells a good story and sometimes not. More often than not it doesn’t matter, it’s the documentation that counts in the long run. Either way we don’t learn much from it as we follow our pre-determined course. Remorse is an indulgence. We all have skeletons in our closets. Perhaps the real awfulness of Tony’s life is that despite a lifetime “working in arts administration” whatever that is, his existence is so vacuous that he almost needs to feel bad about something just to remind himself that he’s alive.

The Sense of an Ending is an erudite and literary book which brutally hammers its theme to death over 160 pages. I do wish I’d written the first thirty of them. 

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