'The Sense of an Ending': A Jury of His Peers

A sense of an ending to Julian Barnes's Booker Prize-winning novel is ours to create.

The Sense of an Ending

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Length: 163 pages
Author: Julian Barnes
Price: $23.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2011-11

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.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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