What kind of novel is The Sense of an Ending? In tenor, it sutures the characteristics of its Booker Prize-winning antecedents—Kazuo Ishiguro’s measured, elegiac The Remains of the Day; Ian McEwan’s cryptic, macabre Amsterdam. Its equable narrator, Tony Webster, weaves the self-assurance of one who has lived all he could, together with his regret and yearning, into a swan song of imperturbable, distinctly English grace. He limns a theory of memory: “what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.” His soliloquies, like those of Axler, the failed actor in Philip Roth’s The Humbling, are acts of complicity with the reader, too—invitations to judge, to condemn, or to forgive.
Tony, a retired arts administrator, settles into a solitude peopled only by his cordial, tactful ex-wife, Margaret, and their reserved daughter, Susie. A solicitor’s letter announces the death of Sarah Ford, the mother of his neurotic college girlfriend, Veronica, and Sarah’s bequest to Tony, £500 and the diary of his childhood friend, Adrian, who had committed suicide in his 20s. Tony’s bemusement over the provenance of this legacy, the letter being the first he has received from Sarah since Adrian’s death, is heightened when Veronica retains the diary. She remains tacit and taciturn, so aggrieved by her family’s past, her own, and Tony’s role in it, that she offers him only a page of the diary, on which Adrian, ever the gifted philosopher, wrote out syllogisms and the equations “how might you express an accumulation containing the integers b, a1, a2, s, v? b = s - vx + a1 or a2 + v + a1 x s = b?” With it is the vituperative letter that Tony wrote Adrian when he learned that the latter was dating Veronica.
While Veronica incinerates the rest of the diary, these two arcane documents hold the key to the Ford family’s secrets, and to Adrian’s rationale for suicide. Most importantly, they cause Tony to revisit and reframe the very foundations of his character and, in turn, the reader’s grasp of where the story pivots—on the moment when Sarah warns Tony, on his first visit to their family home, not to let Veronica manipulate him, perhaps, or when Tony writes the letter without giving the reader so much as a hint of its sheer malice. These reconsiderations are part of a literary tradition that spans the ages from Aristotle, who first used the term “anagnoresis” to connote a protagonist’s sudden discovery of his own nature, or of a deuteragonist’s, to storied British literary critic Sir Frank Kermode, who argued in his 1967 The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction that twists in a novel’s plot cause such reworkings of our perception.
At such pivotal moments, what Barnes, borrowing Kermode’s title, does brilliantly in this, his 11th novel, is to pit the serrated edge of present emotions against the taut, carefully appraised retrospective of what a youthful self imagined those emotions would be. Tony, in turn, wrests theories of time and history from them. “What you fail to do is look ahead, and then imagine yourself looking back from that future point. Learning the new emotions that time brings. Discovering… less certainty… as to what you have been,” he sagely observes.
The turning points clarify the novel’s vatic meditations on what historicizing, storytelling, and the nature of responsibility signify. Adrian, for example, tells their history teacher early on, “my desire to ascribe responsibility might be more a reflection of my own cast of mind than a fair analysis of what happened. That’s one of the central problems of history… the question of subjective versus objective interpretation, the fact that we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us.” He then quotes a French historian as saying, “history is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.” We do not learn untill late in the novel, by which time these lines have acquired an incantatory quality, that they’re characterizations of Tony’s own storytelling.
Adrian’s lines unveil the lacunae of Tony’s memory, on which “time doesn’t act as a fixative, rather as a solvent”, and a darker, more introspective bent to Tony than he himself wants to reveal. The reader must separate this from Tony’s artful “history of the historian”, which strains for understanding or empathy. “I don’t want to give the impression that all I did at Bristol was work and see Veronica”, he deflects the reader’s mockery. “I know. I expect you’re thinking: the poor sap, how did he not see that coming?” he muses, anticipating the reader’s pity. “Again, I must stress that this is my reading now of what happened then. Or rather, my memory now of my reading then of what was happening at the time,” he temporizes.
Yet there are grave, remorseful moments, as well: “What did I know of life, I who had lived so carefully? Who had neither won nor lost, but just let life happen to him? There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest.” These prophetic lines, by now a refrain of an innocent, underread schoolmate of Tony’s evading their history teacher’s question about the character of Henry VIII’s reign, bring us to the heart of the novel’s theory of history and storytelling—that there is no solace in teasing out and prizing apart causes and the motives of actors. There is only disquiet in the act of knowing, and in the apportioning of remorse.
What are we to make of Tony, then? “Peaceable”, complacent, yet wry raconteur? Sly sadist with a deftly manipulative touch, who warns us, “there are those whose main concern is to avoid further damage to themselves, at whatever cost. And those are the ones who are ruthless, the ones to be careful of,” but later avows his own “instinct for survival, for self-preservation”? Sage, penitent memoirist with a flair for self-pity?
As with Barnes’s Prix-Médicis-winning Flaubert’s Parrot, for example, where we’re caught between ridiculing the protagonist who searches for the taxidermified bird who inspired a Flaubertian character, and immersing ourselves in his enchanting if deluded revelry, these competing visions vie for our empathy, wrath, or pity. We tease out the tendrils of “the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated”, assessing character, or forgiving it, accordingly. The sense of an ending is ours to create.