“The Sense of an Ending” by Julian Barnes, a London Schoolboy Grows Up

“The Sense of an Ending” by Julian Barnes (2011) – 163 pages

    “Yes, of course we were pretentious – what else is youth for?”

 When I started “The Sense of an Ending” while reading the amazing first chapter which takes place mostly in London classrooms, I started writing down quotations from that chapter.  At the rate I was writing down quotes, it seemed like I would be copying out nearly the entire novel.  It is important that the reader pay attention to these early classroom discussions for they set the framework for the entire novel.

 Much of the discussion centers on the study of history.

    “That’s one of the central problems with history, isn’t it sir? The question of subjective versus objective interpretation, the fact that we need to know the history of the historian to understand the version that is being put in front of us.”

 This is a statement by Adrian Finn, the acknowledged genius of the class.  Later during the classroom discussion, Adrian makes a statement that can serve as the premise of the entire novel. 

    “History is that certainty produced at that point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”

In the classroom, the students and their teacher are discussing the study of history as an academic subject.   After the first chapter, Julian Barnes, for the rest of the novel, applies this premise to his main character’s own personal history.   Here we have an unreliable narrator, but one who is somewhat aware of his own unreliability. 

 Our memories of people and events that happened years and years ago are faulty.  You might say we remember what we want to remember; we recall a version of events that fits into our own carefully built life story.  We block out from our memory occasions where we ourselves were cruel and mean, especially those times we were extremely mean to someone who was very close to us.   There may be letters and diaries related to these events, but they are usually not very revealing and may have been written to conceal what actually happened. 

 It is not very often today where a novel starts with a premise and follows that premise through to its logical conclusion.  We live in a dumbed down world, a world of Rupert Murdoch, the Koch brothers, and George W. Bush.  That’s why it is such a pleasure to read a novel that is smarter than we are.

 Besides this fascinating plot, “The Sense of an Ending” offers a comprehensive definition of literature. 

    “That 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 by-standers, part of a social backdrop against which real, true, important things might happen. Like what? The things Literature was all about: love, sex, morality, friendship, happiness, suffering, betrayal, adultery, good and evil, heroes and villains, guilt and innocence, ambition, power, justice, revolution, war, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, the individual against society, success and failure, murder, suicide, death, God. And barn owls.”

16 responses to this post.

  1. I haven’t enjoyed Julian Barnes in the past, but these quotes definitely make me want to look into this one.


  2. HI theoncominghope,
    ‘The Sense of an Ending’ is a very, very English novel (at least I found it so). I think it explores a valid premise, that we are all pretty much unreliable in what we remember.


  3. Posted by Kelly S. on November 9, 2011 at 4:06 PM

    This seems like a book I’d enjoy. I’ll have to put it on my library check-out list!


    • Hi Kelly,
      Yes, you most definitely might enjoy this book. Besides it is a short book, and if you don’t like it you haven’t invested much time on it.


  4. […] if I need more reasons to read The Sense of an Ending, the excellent review by Tony’s Book World fairly demands I go read it right […]


  5. Okay, so I liked this book a lot for all the reasons you mention. It is beautifully written, and like you I found myself moved by the thoughtful way Barnes describes art, history, and literature.

    But… [spoiler alert–although I’ll try to be vague]….

    The “revelation” at the end about the friend’s affair and the outcome of that affair felt a little forced to me. It didn’t seem like a natural extension of Tony’s character, or this plot, that he’d be so shocked or appalled by what he discovered. I understood his natural feelings of regret about his own treatment of people, but when he uncovers the secret, it wasn’t as compelling as the parts where he ruminates on his own actions and feelings.

    Sorry—I hope that’s vague enough to not spoil anything, but specific enough for you to get my comment.


  6. Hi Jenny,
    I know exactly what you are referring to; that last twist did seem kind of ‘jokey’. I suppose what Barnes was saying is that our memory is so straightline and conventional that it does not allow enough room for the totally unexpected and implausible.
    I liked ‘The Sense of an Ending’ a lot, but it is still only #4 on my year-end list. I’m noticing not very many people are putting it at the very top of their lists, but it is nearly always on their lists.


    • I love your interpretation of the ending. It’s true enough in life—that sometimes really bizarre shit just happens—but it never quite goes down as well in literature. But I am going to adopt that interpretation into my understanding of the novel.


  7. Posted by AndyM on January 19, 2012 at 10:15 AM

    WARNING: TOAL SPOILER – ONLY READ IF YOU HAVE READ THE BOOK (and if you haven’t why read any of this page??????)

    I don’t think the ending is that bizarre, the only twist – which is the point of the whole book – is his belated realisation that it was supposed to be him and not Adrian who had sex with Veronica’ s mother. When Veronica says: “He’ll do, won’t he?” at the dinner table, when her father says “I’ve – We’ve got a rival” and when they falsify a reason for leaving Tony and Veronica’s mother alone for the morning…..he gets it wrong, he masturbates into the sin (as her gesture reminds him as he is driven away) when he was supposed to impregnate her.(he never understood)
    Therefore it is Adrian who ends up doing so with multiple accumulative effects as the equations and bookmaker analogy make clear.


    • Hi AndyM,
      I get what you’re saying. It just seems a little tacked on to the last couple of pages without preparing us for this switch. And also why would having sex with Veronica’s mother cause Adrian to do what he did?


  8. […] Tony’s Book World: ” It is not very often today where a novel starts with a premise and follows that premise through to its logical conclusion….[I]t is such a pleasure to read a novel that is smarter than we are.” […]


  9. Nice review Tony … I like that you described Tony as an unreliable narrator aware of his unreliability. I think that’s better in a way than my description of his being “reliably unreliable”. I also laughed at your opening about starting to write out the whole book. It was rather like that wasn’t it.

    I couldn’t believe how hard it was to write about such a short book … it had so much in it and I wanted to tease it all out so I ended up looking at it somewhat sideways.


    • Hi WhisperingGums,
      Yes, ‘reliably unreliable’, sounds like me. I had reviewed a new book of short stories by Julian Barnes only a few months before this entry, and no one paid any attention to that book. Goes to show how short stories are undervalued.


  10. […] of reminded of TS Eliot‘s The love song of J. Alfred Prufrock by its melancholic tone,  Tony at Tony’s Book World enjoyed reading a book ‘that’s smarter than we are’ and John Boland at Musings of […]


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