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A Page-Turner … as Far as I Remember
am 2. September 2012
Julian Barnes’s novella “The Sense of an Ending” had been repeatedly recommended to me by various acquaintances, and so I finally bought it. Up to that moment, no real harm had as yet been done – quite the contrary! I was spending my days in glowing anticipation, thinking that a book that has been acclaimed by so many as an outstanding literary masterpiece, written by Julian Barnes at that, would be the perfect companion for a six-hour coach trip I had to undergo.
You wish! I remember turning the pages of this book now distinctly; however, not in a sense of being fascinated by it, but rather in a desperate attempt at seeing how many of them there were still to go. “The Sense of an Ending” is told by Anthony Webster, who, after a rather uneventful life, whose turns and decisions were dictated above all by the will to live comfortably, in his mid-sixties is surprised at finding that the mother of his ex-girlfriend Veronica has bequeathed some money to him, plus the diary of his former friend Adrian, a highly intelligent young man, who committed suicide more than forty years ago. Unfortunately, upon her mother’s death Veronica took the diary into her possession and is not willing to hand it over to Anthony, whom she despises for his reaction to Adrian and her becoming lovers after Anthony had broken up with her. Anthony’s quest for the missing diary soon turns into a quest into the realms of memory and the spectres living in memory’s darker nooks.
As far as this goes, this may be a story taken from real life, and therefore it has a ring of everyday tragedy about it which is by far louder than stage tragedy could ever be: Life going by, at a slow pace day by day, everything seeming normal and pleasant, and finally you are left with the question what good it all was. Did you live your life, or did you just let it happen to you? Or, as the author puts it, “I remember a period in late adolescence when my mind would make itself drunk with images of adventurousness. This is how it will be when I grow up. I shall go there, do this, discover that, love her, and then her and her and her. I shall live as people in novels live and have lived. […] There was a moment in my late twenties when I admitted that my adventurousness had long since petered out. I would never do those things adolescence had dreamt about. Instead, I mowed my lawn, I took holidays, I had my live.” (p. 93) However, this kind of question was already explored many a time before, e.g., with a slightly different perspective in Henry James’s novella “The Beast in the Jungle”. Likewise, the arrogant young men sparring with their history teacher and discussing suicide as a philosophical question remind us of some of Dostoevsky’s characters – which was probably intended by the author. Also the author’s concern with the fallibility of memory and its readiness to ignore episodes that might prove painful or embarrassing to us is not at all new. Just think of Nietzsche, who wrote: “’Das habe ich gethan’, sagt mein Gedächtniss. Das kann ich nicht gethan haben – sagt mein Stolz und bleibt unerbittlich. Endlich – giebt das Gedächtnis nach.“ And of Freud, whose theories on the human mind are to a great degree based on the fallibility of memory – in fact so much so that “The Sense of an Ending” seems rather trite, philosophically.
If you don’t believe me, try this: “I certainly believe we all suffer damage, one way or another. […] Some admit the damage, and try to mitigate it; some spend their lives trying to help others who are damaged; and then there are those whose main concern is to avoid further damage to themselves, at whatever cost. And those are the ones who are ruthless, and the ones to be careful of.” (p.44) Given such never-heard-of chunks of wisdom, Barnes should really have improved the story of “The Sense of an Ending” in order to make the book more interesting, but instead he gives us not too believable a conflict which is based on a letter and the bitchiness of one female character. Why the protagonist after all these years should still feel any kind of interest in such a moody, uncommunicative and manipulative woman, and even glorify her as “mysterious”, completely eludes me.
At the end of the day, “The Sense of an Ending” was a disappointing book to me in that its characters remain distant, but also unconvincing and in that it came over as quite pretentious and unoriginal, probably relying on the assumption that if only a book bores people in a pseudo-existentialist way they might think this book an intellectual revelation.