domingo, 12 de enero de 2014

The Sense Of An Ending by Julian Barnes

In some ways The Sense Of An Ending by Julian Barnes is far too short. Tony Webster, the novel’s central character and first person narrator, lives most of his adult life in relative anonymity. He marries, works to earn his living, raises a daughter and perhaps blends into the suburban landscape of outer London’s long terraces with their fair-weather-only gardens. During these intervening years, how often did Veronica cross his mind? And when she did, just how much of their courting did he recall, and how much did he have to re-invent? Compared to the vivid recollections of school and university years, Anthony’s take on his intervening adulthood seems scant in the extreme, dismissive even.

We would like to know more about Anthony, because Julian Barnes’s novel is pure, unadulterated joy to read. This character is so rounded and three dimensional that often it feels like he is in the room, telling his story. His manner would be quite assertive, but also self-deprecating, without that force of delivery that would suggest confidence. Surely he is a reflective type, but like most of us he is not good at reading others’ motives, especially when these do not coincide with his own. This inability will have significant bearing on this novel’s own sense of an ending.

Now in his sixties and divorced, Anthony recalls the arrival of a new classmate at school, a lad who becomes a friend, adopted into a clique. Adrian, however, is different from the others. He seems more intense, certainly more analytical, both intellectually and personally. He is one to examine the detail of justification in almost every aspect of human activity, most of all his own. But for all his attention to apparent detail, is he any better at knowing himself and his own motives than anyone else? The question will remain open.

Anthony, on the other hand, seems to get on with things as they present themselves and reflect later. He is not prone to analysis. He does find a girlfriend, Veronica, whom he seems to worship, both mentally and physically. It is the nineteen-sixties, the time of sexual liberation and free love. But not for those who lived through the era, Tony reminds us. What became iconic for a decade was at the time probably only an aspiration for an elite. For Anthony it remained a time when he could only dream of the pleasures that might await. His relationship with Veronica, however, did become reasonably intense, even if it did remain pre-marital by not usually going all the way. On a weekend visit to her parents’ home in Kent, her father seemed superciliously jocular and yet evasive, while her mother seemed strangely free and close. She even confided in him, warning him about her daughter. Tony found motive hard to ascribe.

Adrian went to Cambridge, of course, as did Veronica’s brother. Tony didn’t. You might guess that there is going to be a transfer of allegiances, a falling out, a separation and a redrawing of relationships. The Sense Of An Ending is the kind of novel where the twists and turns of people’s lives provide the plot. There is no linear invention that progresses from one false cliff-hanger to another and on to the next, so a review of the book should reveal no more than the above about its principal characters.

Overall, the book is a complete joy. It is not long enough and it is hard not to finish it in one sitting. Eventually Tony has to accept that words thrown away almost without thought or reflection have caused events to twist out consequences that have entwined the people concerned for the rest of their lives. Forty years on, Tony, never good at identifying motive, must wrest out of memory an analysis of his own intentions in the light of consequences of which he remained unaware.

Every minute of every day we communicate, sometimes in anger, and remain unaware that anything we say might have long-term consequences that we could never have imagined. Of course if we do try to consider the significance of everything we say or do, we cease to communicate and have no interaction at all. Thus we remain human, actively involved in lives whose progress and development we cannot predict. Ignorance is inevitable, but it is not blissful. Julian Barnes’s The Sense Of An Ending is not the kind of book that will enlighten or alleviate our collective state of ignorance, but it is pure bliss.

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