REVIEW: The Sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes)

th (1)A university education in English Literature will achieve one certain thing. (There are other things of course, but this one’s pretty definite.) It’s likely to inflate your concept of what substitutes a ‘worthy’ book. If you’re not sure, it’s the kind of book that might be taught on a university course. The kind of book that has ‘themes’ and not much else. The kind of books with pithy quotes you can compare and contrast in an essay. The kind of book that might win the Booker.

Now in fairness to my university, this stance is a bit of a retcon, because when I cast my mind back to the selection of novels that we were prescribed, they’re none too high-minded (the backbone of them coming from an American literature module that took in The Lovely Bones, Kavalier and Clay, Day of the Locust and Isabel Allende as set texts, and Alison Bechdel, Wonder Woman bondage and Batman as lesson-fodder). But growing up I cut my teeth on epic fantasy and endless teen mystery novels in the vein of Enid Blyton and the Hardy Boys–the kind of stuff that is generally lumped together as fluff, or pulp. I can vividly remember my aunt (the kind of woman, I realise now, who reads the Booker list every year and belongs to a book group of former schoolmistresses) telling me, aged fifteen, and mid-way through Raymond E. Feist, that wasn’t it about time I read some grown-up books? Which, at university, is what I did. In those three years of graduate education I pulled away from the world of genre fiction and explored new horizons.

Of course, this wasn’t entirely down to university; a significant chunk of the driving force was I was eighteen and suddenly discovering books and authors I’d never even considered existed, and – shock – they were good. There’s nothing wrong with that. But somewhere in that I started to consider genre fiction the lower art form, and literary fiction (worthy fiction! fiction you might study!) the pinnacle of writing. Looking back now, it can only have been received wisdom; I had to be dragged through the university reading list, and my housemates and I would sit down every weekend to watch True Blood and Buffy so we were hardly particularly sniffy of ‘genre’ if it didn’t come in the form of paper and words. Then I left university, I did a postgraduate degree, I had a house, I bought furniture. I watched the Book Show, and an actor from Downton Abbey (a sure bet for an opinion on literature if ever there was one) tipped The Sense of an Ending as his winner for the Booker. (And, just proving how persuasive television and the RP accent is, it wasn’t me who bought this book, but my partner John, who has only once strayed out of the Bermuda triangle of Hunger Games, Divergent and Raymond E. Feist to read Sartres.)

Which brings me four or five years down the line (and I promise, soon, I will actually talk about the book), turning twenty-five and now more years away from university than I was in it. Five years in which I’ve self-consciously reminded myself (after slogging through a to-be-read pile of respectable tomes) that literary fiction might not be the be-all-and-end-all, abandoned my semi-complete novel in favour of a daft mystery novel, and, crucially, rediscovered the enjoyment of reading a book for a purpose other than selecting the quotes to compare and contrast the state of literature. In fact, the pendulum has swung so far the other way, I was lining up the squad to summarily execute The Sense of an Ending in this inevitable blog post, because it had the audacity to have won an award and to be about, according to the blurb, ‘sex and death’. (Oh, fuck off.)

Coming to actually reading it, I’ve ended up somewhere in the middle camp. The first fifty pages, enmeshed in the public school upbringing of the narrator and his friendship with a preternaturally intelligent pseudo-philosophical fellow student, are great. The opening is deftly written, coming on like an arch Dead Poet’s Society drained of sentiment, and, more importantly, self-aware, taking pops at the narrator’s own youthful pretensions. In fact, Barnes has managed to successfully produce a selection of acidic quotes that, if removed from their context and turned back on their creator, provide quite an incisive criticism of the worst kind of literary fiction itself. More on that in a second.

Then, about fifty pages in, it shifts gears to his adult life, flip-flopping through his middle-class sex life (it’s all very restrained and symbolic, no matter how many times you say the word ‘wanking’) and failed relationships. Midway, it turns on the schoolfriend’s suicide, although for a book so determined to undercut its own melodrama in an effort to be meditative, the suicide remains unintelligibly motivated, even in the final denouement which sees (ridiculously, actually) a set of soap-opera level twists disguised as subtle epiphanies. Try as I might, I couldn’t find the level of engagement in Part 2 that Part 1 had engendered; instead, I felt as if I was being treated to an essay.

Now, don’t get me wrong–it’s a very good essay. Barnes has some excellent things to say on the subject of memory and subjectivity and history and perspective and, and, and… Some sentences are artfully, beautifully constructed to whisper poignant, delicate statements about mortality and truth, and they are very very good sentences on their own. But slotted into a narrative they feel false and self-indulgent, the very definition of style over substance. But you know what? They’d look great in the footnotes of my undergraduate paper.

In fact, Barnes sums it up in Part 1. He says: “Of course, there were other sorts of literature – theoretical, self-referential, lachrymosely autobiographical – but they were just dry wanks.”

But I am prepared to hold my hands up and suggest this review is just a hatchet job written from a preconceived anti-establishment point of view I’d already decided to hold before I started reading the novel. The pendulum swinging the other way. I am genuinely sat here, trying to deconstruct my own response, and figure out if my stance before picking the book up has colored my view. I was fully prepared to hate this novel; in fact, the first fifty pages disarmed me by being likable and readable. But at the mid-point I was prepared to say the novel was great, and potentially reassess some of the weighty tomes acclaimed by the Guardian that had worked their way to the bottom of my reading pile. By the end, it was squandered.

So instead, I’m presenting an alternative theory. In looking on goodreads, I noticed a five-star review from a (older, and this is relevant) writer whose opinion (and work) I respect, who loved the book for its “study of memory and its deceits”. I noted earlier that the book seems concerned with providing gems of truth that are firmly about its themes, and perhaps in the end it has far more to do with whether I get that shiver of recognition from reading the book that we look for – chiming with something we’ve thought or felt ourselves. In which case, it might be no coincidence the book lost me when the protagonist began deconstructing all his own pretensions, living an unremarkable life and – of course – turned twenty-five.

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