The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes

I try to remember sometimes, when I’m waving my arms left and right, dividing books into sheep and goats and making my pronouncements about them, that quality is largely subjective.  We all know this, of course.  When I say a book is good, it’s shorthand for “I thought it was good.”  When I say a book is bad… well, sometimes it’s just bad.  But more often than not, I mean: “I didn’t like this book, and here are the reasons why.  If these don’t bother you, then you might still enjoy it.  Thanks, love Simon.”

I’ll be keeping all this mind when I’m writing about Julian Barnes’ Booker-winning novel The Sense of an Ending (2011), kindly sent to me by Jonathan Cape.  Because Dame Stella Rimmington and her posse must have thought it the best book published in 2011.  Although I can’t imagine why.

Which is not to say that I thought The Sense of an Ending was bad.  It isn’t.  It is very, very average.  There were probably a thousand other books published in 2011 that were equally good, and many that followed a very similar pattern: lengthy biography of main character(s); twist; twist; end.

Normally I’d give you a brief outline of the plot, but to be honest the first half of the (admittedly short) novel seem to do just that.  It’s Bildungsroman by numbers.  We start with Tony Webster at school, with his friends Colin and Alex.  They’re something of a clique, but do open up to allow the entry of new boy Adrian.  He is very serious and deep etc.; they pretend to be deep, but are mostly Adrian Molesque.  Everything meanders along, we get the sort of coming-of-age stuff which bores me rigid, and Tony meets his first girlfriend – Veronica Ford.  Webster and Ford, geddit?  Ahahahah. *Sigh*

Big event happens, which I shan’t spoil.. fast-forward forty years, and Tony gets an unexpected letter from a solicitor which reopens a can of worms.  Cue all manner of reflection on the past, including trying to get back in touch with Veronica.  Towards the end there comes a few twists, which were executed rather better than the rest of the novel (thought I) and, indeed, the ending is, in general, the best part.  Perhaps that’s why Barnes chose his title; to draw attention to this…  I think The Sense of an Ending would actually have worked much better as a short story; it does all seem to lead to a single climactic moment, and could be condensed much shorter than its 150 pages.

He (Barnes? Webster?) if fond of breaking off into observations which teeter between the profound and the platitudinous.  Here’s one:

It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age: when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others.

Quick flick, and here’s another:

We live with such easy assumptions, don’t we?  For instance, that memory equals events plus time.  But it’s all much odder than this.  Who was it said that memory is what we thought we’d forgotten?  And it ought to be obvious to us that time doesn’t act as a fixative, rather as a solvent.  But it’s not convenient – it’s not useful – to believe this; it doesn’t help to get on with our lives; so we ignore it.

Hmm.  It does sound a bit like he’s deliberately inserting passages which can be whipped out for the blurb, doesn’t it?  The narrative is from Tony Webster’s perspective, and if these musings come from him, then that’s a legitimate narrative device – perhaps Tony is the sort to make these vague sort of summaries about the world.  But if they’re Barnes’ own pseudo-philosophical moments, then I am a little concerned.  Similarly, I’ve always disliked the “If this were a novel…” line of writing, ever since I read it in Enid Blyton’s stories, and it’s a trick Barnes uses over and over again.  His writing is, in fact, unceasingly self-conscious.  In general I found his writing passable – ‘readable‘ – but nothing more.  I might dip a toe into the readability/excellence debate at some point, but it is a debate already overpopulated with toes.

Perhaps my problem is that I’ve recently read Virgina by Jens Christian Grondahl, and William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, both of which are novellas concerned with the inadequacy of memory, and both of which are rather better than Barnes’ contribution to the field.  I asked people on Twitter yesterday (yes, I know, how frighteningly modern is that?) and consensus seemed to be that Barnes’ win was more of a Lifetime Achievement than anything else.  Since this is my first Barnes novel, I can’t comment – I can only say that I would be astonished if it were the best book written in 2011, under any criteria.  Since I’ve only read two other novels published last year (one of which was by a member of 2011’s Booker panel) I don’t feel qualified to say.  So I’ll hand over to those who might know better… (I picked three from many, many reviews.)

Others who got Stuck in this Book:

“I was immediately captivated by the gorgeous writing” – JoAnn, Lakeside Musing

“Although it is very well-written, I thought it was ultimately an unsatisfactory and frustrating read.” – Mrs. B, The Literary Stew

“The writing is simply gorgeous, and it tackles one of my favourite themes and plot techniques, the human condition and the reliability of our distant memory.” – Bibliophile by the Sea

41 thoughts on “The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes

  • February 8, 2012 at 12:10 am
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    Indeed! As I said on Twitter, I agree with you that the book was largely average. But I'm not sure that I agree that the ending was the best bit, I thought the musings were important because the book is largely about perception.

    I mean, I didn't think it did a great job of talking about memory but it was a little thought provoking in how the main character perceived himself. Though he was pretty boring in the first place…

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    • February 8, 2012 at 4:46 pm
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      Well, we thought it average for slightly different reasons, there's some variation! I just wonder whether Barnes was going for dull and average, or whether he really thought he was creating something profound…

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    • February 8, 2012 at 4:48 pm
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      Hi there. Just so you know for the future, it's nice when putting a link on someone's review actually to comment on their review too :)

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    • February 11, 2012 at 6:10 pm
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      Hi, apologies. Didn't want to be rude. I didn't read the book (we have few reviewers on the site) so I was not able to give my own opinion but only offer a link to Ian's review. It is on my TBR list so will come back soon and then we can have a proper 'fight'… ;)

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    • February 11, 2012 at 11:58 pm
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      Make sure you do that! ;) I'm always up for a book fight… I certainly had one with this book at my book group… it brought out fairly wide-ranging opinions!

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    • April 3, 2012 at 9:28 am
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      Here I am with my booksing gloves. I think the book bears a heavy burden of a big prize and everyone judges it by 'is it the best book in 2011?' I like the publicity and debate big prizes bring but it is slightly odd to compare and reward pieces of art.

      I tried to approach it as any other book and I liked it. I think it is more about how we change throughout the life and end up as completely different person although memory and how we select what to forget is a motif as well. The form doesn't bother me and I found the length of the book just right to tell what author wanted to tell. You can call it novella or a long 'short story' but that would not make it better or worse from my perspective.

      I think opinions vary because of the expectations readers have when they start reading. Too big expectations or a negative approach from start often produce bad reading experience. You also balance it by saying that some people may enjoy it and it is exactly like that. I enjoyed it and after finishing the book thought about my life and my memories (can’t remember more details now…;-) )

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  • February 8, 2012 at 12:28 am
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    I liked it but found the first paragraph too foretelling. Not much was really a surprise after that. Except for the ending I liked the first half better. He was so boring as an older man with his odd ruminations and I never cottoned to Veronica. How she got on my nerves. Do you think all the water references were symbolic of his seeking absolution?

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    • February 8, 2012 at 4:49 pm
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      I did think the first paragraph was very poor – very first-novel-esque – but that the second, third etc. paragraphs got much better. And then it all went downhill again!

      Wasn't Veronica awful? I think her stubbornness was largely a way of prolonging the novel. (I like it less the more I talk about it!) And I didn't even notice water imagery – well done you!

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  • February 8, 2012 at 1:32 am
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    There are so many times when I want to say this: "It is very, very average." Because very often a book isn't bad, it's just not good. If that makes sense…

    Yours is the second review of this book that made me doubt a bit. Everyone else seemed to love it, which is usually an indicator to me to be wary.

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    • February 8, 2012 at 4:50 pm
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      I read a great New York Times review (via Dan, in a comment below) which included this excerpt, with which we would both agree: "This was not one of those years when the Man Booker Prize winner was laughably bad. No, any extreme expression of opinion about The Sense of an Ending feels inappropriate. It isn’t terrible, it is just so . . . average. It is averagely compelling (I finished it), involves an average amount of concentration and, if such a thing makes sense, is averagely well written: excellent in its averageness! "

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  • February 8, 2012 at 2:27 am
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    This was my first Barnes novel, too, and I absolutely loved it. Perhaps it was more of a lifetime achievement award but, if that's the case, them that means I have more excellent reading ahead of me. I do think my contemplative end-of-the -year mood enhanced my overall enjoyment. It sounds like I'm in for a treat when I get to Maxwell's novel… added that one to my list after Rachel's review.

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    • February 8, 2012 at 4:50 pm
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      Glad you liked it! I'd love to know your thoughts on the Maxwell, when you get around to reading it. I wonder if it'll change your view on the Barnes!

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  • February 8, 2012 at 7:08 am
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    Thanks for the link! I agree that the book certainly wasn't bad but it wasn't great, hence it is average. However, it gets more points among the 'average' group if only for the discussion it generates among readers. I'm still astonished at how many people visit my review of this book and how much comments it has generated mostly from people who don't even have blogs or google usernames hence the amount of 'Anonymous' people who felt a need to add their thoughts about this book.

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    • February 9, 2012 at 9:25 am
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      I did see how many comments you had on that review – astonishing numbers! Our book group discussion on this was quite animated, mostly because two people found it hilarious (which was bizarre to me) and the rest of us didn't… I thought it would be difficult to argue about a book I thought average, but I managed it ;)

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  • February 8, 2012 at 11:37 am
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    With everything I heard about this book I half expected a glow to emerge once I cracked open the cover. It didn't take more than a few pages to find out it wasn't for me, perhaps another time.

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    • February 9, 2012 at 9:26 am
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      Haha! Well, keep it one side for a later date, perhaps… my copy has already been given away.

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  • February 8, 2012 at 12:59 pm
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    OK, I really liked this book, but I also have the Maxwell on my shelves (thanks to both you and Rachel). Now I'm intrigued … must read it soon in order to do my own comparison!

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  • February 8, 2012 at 1:38 pm
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    Can't comment on this one (although your review was another reminder of all the things I hate about modern literature), but since you brought it up I'll say that I didn't care for Maxwell's So Long, See You Tomorrow. I think my expectations for it were too high – I was expecting another Gilead and it just wasn't even close. But as you said, it's all subjective. :) Thanks for the review!

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    • February 9, 2012 at 9:27 am
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      I am a bit surprised that you didn't like So Long, See You Tomorrow (although I agree that it's nowhere near as good as Gilead) – the only other Maxwell I've finished, They Came Like Swallows, was better, thought I.

      And, no, I think you can safely stay away from Barnes!

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  • February 8, 2012 at 1:48 pm
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    Geoff Dyer was shortlisted for the first-ever Hatchet Job of the Year Award for his review of this book. He, too, basically said that it was just very average. (Link to info about award: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/feb/07/michael-cunningham-review-hatchet-job)

    Disappointing that this book has been so underwhelming. I've read three of Barnes's books and I liked them all pretty well, especially Flaubert's Parrot. Maybe I'll just reread that one…

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    • February 9, 2012 at 9:28 am
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      Thanks so much for this link, Dan – I enjoy reading hatchet reviews (although the Barnes wasn't particularly hatchetty – as you say, he said it was average, which isn't quite the same thing, is it?)

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  • February 8, 2012 at 3:20 pm
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    I am in the 'lifetime achievement' camp in some respects but I am also in the 'oh we best make the most 'literary' one win after all that hoo ha hadn't we?' frame of mind too. I read this book but really had so little to say about it that I decided not to post about it, I am glad that you did, we concur in so many ways on this one.

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    • February 9, 2012 at 9:29 am
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      I'm surprised I mustered up enough to write a whole review, really…! Although I've got to say, if this was the most literary on the list, I feel sorry for the others…

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  • February 8, 2012 at 8:15 pm
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    Haven't read this book but I read 'So Long, See You Tomorrow' on your recommendation and subsequently came across it in a secondhand bookshop. I thought it was an absolute gem: restrained, enlightening, truthful, authentically ambiguous with stunning prose. Oh, to be able to write like this. I will search out other Maxwell titles now; thank you for this recommendation.

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    • February 9, 2012 at 9:30 am
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      So glad you liked it! I agree with your assessment completely. I definitely recommend the only other Maxwell title I've read – They Came Like Swallows.

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  • February 8, 2012 at 9:10 pm
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    I'm a bear (cat, physicist) of little brain, but I'm not unhappy to admit that no I don't "geddit" ! Please enlighten me?

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  • February 9, 2012 at 12:22 am
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    I wasn’t a big fan of this book. As ever with Julian Barnes, a lot of the writing and use of language is absolutely exquisite. I normally love his stuff. However, with this one I really struggled with the plot – maybe outright plot-holes, or, at least, an awful lot of things just didn’t ring true for me. Short doesn’t necessarily mean slight and lacking depth, but it did here, in my opinion. Still a big fan of his in general though.

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    • February 9, 2012 at 9:49 am
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      People at book group kept saying the writing was beautiful, and I just didn't see it… it was simple, but I never 'got' the sort of beauty in simplicity that some writers have. Hmm. But might well try him again, one day.

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    • September 2, 2014 at 12:52 am
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      Isn't that the point? History is full of examples of things that don't ring quite true. Isn't it the same with life? Haven't you ever listened to someone's story and wondered about the holes? The mystery? I thought the book was genius. It's so sad and introspective. I think that is what has caused the reaction on so many blogs; in attempting to understand the book, readers are in effect trying to rationalise their own life and their own experiences.

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  • June 29, 2012 at 9:39 pm
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    I thought it was a great read with all the beautiful references to time, our memories and especially our perceptions. I think the ending fits together nicely with the beginning of the book to close the circle and gives the reader the opportunity to contemplate about some of the earlier quotes and passages.
    All in all, as I said, I thought it was a great read with a lot of small treasures in it.

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  • November 4, 2012 at 11:50 am
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    Sorry for all of you who didn't appreciate the book. As Veronica would say "you just don't get it" period.

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  • December 10, 2012 at 9:23 pm
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    Hi, just completed the book & I loved it! But,like Tony,I just don't get it:-) I.e who is the Adrian in care and the 'sister' Mary.help pls!

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    • December 10, 2012 at 10:39 pm
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      Oh dear, I'm afraid all the details of this have gone from my mind!

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  • August 30, 2013 at 4:08 pm
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    Finally my inability to read more than half a Julian Barnes novel bears fruit!

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  • May 10, 2014 at 1:40 pm
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    The story's facade is simple, refined almost to monotony and dependent on the revelation of a secret towards the ending. But what is hidden between the lines is far more chaotic—and likely to leave the reader anxious for days after finishing the book. I loved that the book made me really think about regret, and repentance. It also made me think about the idea that we are always dishonest narrators of our own lives. And the book was very disturbing that it made me think about how easy it is to think you are one kind of person, when you are actually not and how universal human frailty is.
    The ending was excellent that it left me lost in the lines, sitting there, recollecting all the little pieces of story back together in my mind. And it left me chaotic and disturbed for days after finishing the book.

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  • June 16, 2014 at 11:55 am
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    The writing is beautiful and easy to read. I found myself re-reading the last 10 pages a few times to make sure I really grocked the ending which was not super straightforward. I highly recommend this well-written book with a very exciting and thought-provoking conclusion.

    Reply

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