We are all the authors of our own lives. Not necessarily as they are lived, but rather as they are remembered, and in the end that’s all we have. We know ourselves through narratives that we construct, and for most there is little other evidence to corroborate the truth of our lives beyond these stories that we tell to ourselves and those who care to listen. The question that is posed by Julian Barnes’ piercing and often devastating novel The Sense of and Ending is: what happens when we find ourselves to be the worst kind of unreliable narrators? The kind that deludes not only others, but also ourselves?
The novel presents the story of Anthony Webster, recalled from a point late in life when his uneventful and solitary retirement is disturbed by the sudden and mysterious resurfacing of his long forgotten past. There is a scene early in the book, during Anthony’s school days in the’960s in which a teacher asks his class the seemingly simple question: “What is history?” Anthony recalls answering a little too quickly, “History is the lies of the victors.” The teacher expects such an answer from Anthony, who characterizes his own youthful self as “book-hungry, sex-hungry, meritocratic, anarchistic,” to whom “all political and social systems appeared corrupt” and yet he “declined to consider an alternative other than hedonistic chaos.” His teacher responds that is all well and good “as long as you remember that history is also the self-delusions of the defeated.”
Anthony’s friend Adrian Finn offers another answer, that “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.” And these words take on greater meaning throughout the course of the novel as Anthony’s focus narrows from these grand preoccupations of youth to the increasingly impossible task of understanding and accounting for his own personal history.
From the moment that Anthony meets Adrian, he knows that he’s different than the rest of the rebellious, intellectually and sexually ravenous peers of his youth. Whereas they seek redemption from the oppressive structures of their parents, schools and life’s expectations by aspiring to these loosely formed visions of anarchic hedonism, Adrian pushes them “to believe in the application of thought to life, in the notion that principles guided actions.” Anthony is drawn in by Adrian’s sense of philosophical clarity and ethical responsibility and the two remain friends even as they go their separate ways after graduation, Anthony to Bristol and Adrian to Cambridge.
At university, Anthony meets a girl named Veronica Ford and they start “going out”. Their courtship is fraught with all of the insecurities, awkward sexual exploration and emotional ambiguities that are typical of the first relationships of youth. Anthony feels scrutinized and judged by Veronica, who maintains an air of social and intellectual superiority throughout their time together. Eventually, she takes him home for a weekend to meet her parents and these feelings of inadequacy are compounded by the smirking condescension of her “posher and more socially skilled family.”
Shortly thereafter, their relationship comes to an end and Anthony receives a letter from his old school friend Adrian Finn asking for his permission to go out with Veronica. Anthony pretends not to care in the least, extending a flippant and vaguely spiteful blessing and goes on with his life, eventually falling out of contact with both of them, just as he abandons the radical ideals of his youth for a comfortable and unassuming position among the British middle class. But there’s also something fateful and tragic that occurs in this exchange between young friends and lovers which Anthony buries deep below the surface of his memory.
Years later, after Anthony has lived through a career, a marriage, the birth of his daughter and an amicable divorce, settling into a life that has achieved “a state of peaceableness, even peacefulness”m he receives an unexpected package in the mail that brings his long buried past startlingly into the present and calls into question his very sense of himself and the things that he is capable of. The revelations that ensue lead Anthony through a series of reflections upon the fallibility of memory and the malleability of perception through time. What he discovers is that the story that he had told himself these many years, the story of his own life is etched throughout with delusions and deceptions, the consequences of which reach far beyond the scope of his own “peaceable” existence.
The Sense of an Ending is both the story of Anthony Webster’s life, recalled in Barnes’ beautifully rendered prose, as well as a philosophical meditation upon the limits that are placed on memory by the passage of time. At only 160 pages, it’s a novel that merits multiple readings, containing an abundance of possible meanings and motives the veracity of which seem always just barely out of reach. In addition to his more literary output, Barnes also pens pseudonymous crime fiction, and there’s an undeniable element of suspense to this novel, as the reader joins Anthony on an increasingly obsessive excavation of his own past that perplexes and obscures more often than it reveals.
Upon awarding the novel the 2011 Man Booker Prize, prize chair Stella Rimington remarked, “The Sense of an Ending has the markings of a classic of English literature. It is exquisitely written, subtly plotted, and reveals new depths with each reading.” Indeed, this is a novel that is worthy of such heights of praise, as it combines expertly crafted narrative with a depth of philosophical inquiry and psychological complexity that is unequaled in much of contemporary English and American literature.