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As efficient as a Swiss clock

February 20, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes 2011 French title: Une fille, qui danse.

This month our Book Club picked The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. I had read reviews about it and knew one of the themes was memory. That’s all I remembered, how ironic.

Barnes_senseOur narrator is Tony, he’s in his sixties, retired and in the first part of the book, he relates his years in high school and university. He pictures his friendship with Alex and Colin and how Adrian came into the group. They went to college separately and tried to keep in touch. Tony studied in Bristol and stayed a year with his girlfriend Veronica and he even introduces her to his friends. They eventually break up and he later receives a letter from Adrian, saying he’s dating Veronica. After graduation, Tony leaves the UK to travel in America and when he returns, he learns that Adrian has committed suicide. He planned it at perfection and made of it a way of living and leaving according to his theories. Tony thinks highly of him to have put into practice all his reasoning about life and to have gone all the way through to be faithful to his principles.

In the second part, we fast forward to the present. Tony had a career, married Margaret, got a divorce, had a daughter Susie, who’s now in her thirties. He’s a grand-father and lives the orderly life of a common citizen. No ups and downs. He’s friend with his ex-wife. Small life, safe life, no big emotion. This comfort is disrupted when he receives a letter from an attorney saying that Veronica’s mother died and left him £500 and Adrian’s diary in her will. This leads Tony to meet with Veronica again and she shows him the spiteful letter he had sent to Adrian after he learnt he was with her. Tony is confronted with his younger self and the way his memory amended the events to picture him honourably. He feels ashamed and starts a crusade to atone his meanness.

This forced march down to memory lane won’t do him good.

Honestly, I’m not thrilled about The Sense of an Ending. Julian Barnes portrays beautifully the impact of ageing, explores with great intelligence the tricks our brain does to us. I have tons of quotes. The structure of the book is masterfully crafted. He drops clues here and there and everything makes sense in the end. Perfect construction. Perfect language. Perfect little thoughts about life. Too perfect to be lively. Too perfect to be true to life because life is messy. To me, it remained a sort of cold work of art, a designer suit perfectly cut but with visible seams.

It also felt like déjà vu. The ending, although I hadn’t seen it coming, is a bit stretched and clichéd. The guilt trip Tony is taking seems over the top. The poor man just takes himself too seriously. What a bore!

Sure, Julian Barnes made me think. I don’t imagine this book written by a younger author. Life experience seeps through every page and I wonder how much of himself Julian Barnes put into this.

After all, wasn’t ‘back then’ the Sixties? Yes it was, but as I said, it depended on where – and who – you were. If you’ll excuse a brief history lesson: most people didn’t experience ‘the Sixties’ until the Seventies. Which meant, logically, that most people in the Sixties were still experiencing the Fifties – or, in my case, bits of both decades side by side. Which made things rather confusing.

That’s what the Sixties were for my parents and that’s why they missed The Doors, Jimmy Hendrix, and Janis Joplin to listen to Frank Alamo or Sylvie Vartan.

All the thinking about memory was interesting but not really new.

We live with such easy assumptions, don’t we? For instance, that memory equals events plus time. But it’s all much odder than this. Who was it said that memory is what we thought we’d forgotten? And it ought to be obvious to us that time doesn’t act as a fixative, rather as a solvent. But it’s not convenient – it’s not useful – to believe this; it doesn’t help us get on with our lives; so we ignore it.

Yes, our mind transforms memories until what we recall faintly resembles the truth. And what is truth, really? Julian Barnes makes it sound a bad thing. However, without that coping mechanism, we wouldn’t survive to pain or shameful moments. We’d be hurting all the time, we wouldn’t move on. We’d all be a walking bundle of raw wounds.

Julian Barnes also seems to share with Romain Gary the idea that “truth dies young”, meaning that you see yourself and the world clearly when you’re young and everything goes downhill from there. Years bury your young self under layers of habits and resignation as you settle in life. In both cases, there’s nostalgia for adolescence and especially for these years of illusions and undefined future. Personally, I don’t miss that part of my life. Do I want to go back there and spend my days half-drowning in an ocean of shyness? No thanks, I’m better off now.

I do agree with Julian Barnes on a lot of things he writes and especially with that quote:

Yes indeed, if Tony had seen more clearly, acted more decisively, held to truer moral values, settled less easily for a passive peaceableness which he first called happiness and later contentment. If Tony hadn’t been fearful, hadn’t counted on the approval of others for his own self-approval … and so on, through a succession of hypotheticals leading to the final one: so, for instance, if Tony hadn’t been Tony.

For me, it’s no use regretting missed opportunities or thinking you didn’t live your life to your best potential. Because, who really sabotage themselves consciously? We all make what we think is the best decision at the moment we make it, we all let go of possibilities because we don’t have it in us to take a risk, face our families, risk pain or act out of character. If we hadn’t been ourselves…

There are lots of excellent things in that novel. If The Sense of an Ending were a human, it’d be a top model. Beautiful but aloof, perfect but a bit fake, so polished that it’s not real anymore. You know what? Top models don’t make me swoon.

  1. February 21, 2014 at 2:22 am

    I like your analysis – I enjoyed his writing but once I’d finished it, it didn’t leave me with much. You summed up exactly what the book is like!

    • February 21, 2014 at 9:32 pm

      Hi, thanks for visiting. I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one with this impression.
      Have you read any other book by him?

      • February 21, 2014 at 10:39 pm

        I borrowed Flaubert’s Parrot as an audio book but feel I missed a lot; prefer to see the words on the page, reread and savour certain bits.

        • February 23, 2014 at 9:53 am

          I still have to read that one. I’ve only heard good things about it.

  2. Brian Joseph
    February 21, 2014 at 12:34 pm

    I had heard a lot about this book previously.

    Very insightful commentary.

    You pick out some interesting flaws in this book that others have seemed to have missed. I can see have the two perfect and neat world thing could lead a narrative into trouble. On the other hand I like explorations of memory and aging. I really want to give this one a try to see what I think.

    • February 21, 2014 at 9:34 pm

      It’s a good book, although I don’t like the ending and I thought it was too neat. It’s a short novel, go for it, it’s worth reading. I’ll be interested in reading your thoughts about it.

  3. February 21, 2014 at 5:10 pm

    I have this one on the shelf. I have really enjoyed some of Barnes early work (Flaubert’s Parrot in particular). I agree, I don’t have nostalgia for my adolescent self either. Did you read anything about the author’s life (I know you tend to avoid that), but my “sense” is that he’s struggling with grief and depression.

    • February 21, 2014 at 9:36 pm

      I’ve read other books by him too.
      The thought that Tony was a bit depressed crossed my mind. Didn’t Barnes recently write about his grief when his wife passed away?
      I’ll enjoy discussing this book with you when you read it. There’s a lot to say about the ending.

      • February 22, 2014 at 6:50 pm

        Yes she died of a brain tumor in 2008.

        • February 23, 2014 at 10:04 am

          That’s what I thought.

  4. February 21, 2014 at 7:26 pm

    I read this book some time last year or the year before and your review matches my impression. I like the work of Julian Barnes, but this one was just as you said a bit aloof. For me, above all the ending was disappointing… somehow it felt like a loose end, not mentioning that it seemed unrealistic to me.

    • February 21, 2014 at 9:41 pm

      I totally agree with you about the ending.
      Perhaps the book feels off because it’s at a crossroads between literary fiction (the thoughts about time, memory, the analysis of feelings…) and “crime” fiction with Tony enquiring about Adrian’s death and the reason why Veronica’s mother left him this diary. The ending fell on me like a conclusion by Hercule Poirot.

      • February 24, 2014 at 10:47 am

        I didn’t mind the enquiries which you mentioned. That is what we all do sometimes when we can’t understand why things turned out to be like they did. Maybe I read to little Agatha Christie to see the similarities to Hercule Poirot. However, I sort of had the impression that the author didn’t know how to get out of the mess in which he brought himself writing… at least not decently and without slipping into kitch.

        • February 25, 2014 at 12:08 am

          The ending is definitely strange and “out of place” compared to the rest of the book.

  5. February 21, 2014 at 9:46 pm

    I haven’t read it yet, but others by him which i did like. I’ve read mixed reviews abiut this. Soe raving, some luke warm. Reading your post I think I might not be all that keen on it either. Well done but forgettable. I’ll have to read it and find out. I suppose you know that Andrew wrote a post on the ending and I think it got hundreds of comments.

    • February 21, 2014 at 9:58 pm

      I’d like to read your thoughts about it. I’ve seen Andrew’s post and I’m not surprised it got many comments (although it’s the first time I’ve seen more than four hundred comments on a blog I’m following) when you’ve read it, you’re itching to discuss the ending with someone. I can’t wait for my book club meeting.

  6. February 22, 2014 at 4:00 pm

    Excellent review. I love the supermodel analogy! There is something very cold and aloof about the way it’s written, and “so polished that it’s not real any more” is a great way of putting it. I actually enjoyed a lot of the musings on time and memory – you’re right, I suppose, that it’s not really new, but I thought he expressed things really beautifully in places.

    The ending was my least favourite part. I think the reason my blog post got so many comments was not because of what I wrote, but because many people felt, like you and I did, that the ending was a bit flat. And because the book was so acclaimed they thought they must have missed something, and headed to Google looking for answers…

    • February 23, 2014 at 9:58 am

      I also enjoyed the musings and thought it was well written.
      The ending pops out of nowhere and you just scratch your head thinking “where did I miss the clues?” That’s why I said to Edith earlier that it had a Hercule Poirot feeling. You’re right, that makes people rush to Google and find answers.

  7. February 22, 2014 at 4:21 pm

    By the way, Emma, just noticed the French title: Une fille, qui danse. It’s been a couple of years since I read the book, but I don’t remember any dancing girls. Can you shed any light on the title? Maybe my memory’s worse than Tony’s ;-)

    • February 23, 2014 at 10:03 am

      It’s Veronica. She dances on pop music once in Tony’s room.
      I think I’m going to ask the publisher why they picked that title. It’s a bit puzzling.
      I’m not surprised they changed it; The Sense of an Ending doesn’t translate well into French.
      I think it’s multilayered here: making sense of Adrian’s death, of Tony and Veronica’s relationship, of Tony’s life…

  8. leroyhunter
    February 24, 2014 at 12:30 pm

    I find the phenomenon of the response to the book more interesting than the book itself. People are *still* arguing about it on blogs, from what I can see.

    • February 25, 2014 at 12:10 am

      Arguing is maybe a strong word.
      I think Andrew’s right: it’s the Booker Prize syndrom. The novel seems so simple that you think that superior minds saw something you didn’t and you can’t help wondering if you’ve missed something.

  9. March 26, 2014 at 5:16 pm

    Beautiful final paragraph Emma. I wish I’d thought of it.

    I still get a fair number of hits for my review of this. I suspect you’ll find the same. As Leroy says, it’s remarkable how much it still seems to interest people. Particularly, frankly, given I’ve written of much more interesting books.

    • March 26, 2014 at 11:34 pm

      Thanks, Max.

      I think none of my posts is going to beat The Prophet in terms of hits. It’s not always our best reviews or the best books we’ve read that attract attention.

  1. March 7, 2014 at 5:04 pm

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