The Inaccuracies And Inadequacies Of Memory – The Sense Of An Ending

In 1984, Julian Barnes was first shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.  He did not win that year.  Nor did he win in 1998, or 2005.  However, after more than thirty years writing various styles of fiction, Barnes won the Man Booker Prize for his novel The Sense of an Ending.

The Man Booker Prize is an award given yearly to the best English Language book written by an author from the British Commonwealth (former winners that I’ve read and enjoyed include Midnight’s Children, Disgrace (by Coetzee), and Life of Pi).  Out of these (and now Barnes’ latest), I would give the edge to Barnes.  Why?  Well, let’s discuss it below!

The Sense of an Ending
Julian Barnes
Alfred A Knopf
August 4, 2011
163 pages 

One of the first things Julian Barnes’ book The Sense of an Ending tells us, through the character of Adrian Finn, that history is, “that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation” and this is a theme throughout the novel.

How much can we rely on memory?  If memory is to be trusted, it must be accurate.  The crux of this novel is that memory, and for that matter history, is what we make of it.  Whether the victor, or the defeated, we all twist the resulting information in our own ways, towards our own advantages.

The first third of the novel (Part I) deals with the two lead characters, Tony Webster (our narrator) and Adrian Finn.  Though Tony is friends with two other boys at his school, when Adrian arrives, he becomes a fourth… but a more serious, thoughtful member of the group.

Throughout the first part, Tony refers to this part or that part not actually being contained within the story he is telling.  Humorously (or humourlously, since we’re dealing with a British author), Tony continually refers to how characters, most especially Adrian, would act and react if they were within a novel.

An example: “What was the point of having a situation worthy of fiction if the protagonist didn’t behave as he would have done in a book?”  The funniest part about this line (ah, irony!) is that Tony clearly doesn’t see himself as the protagonist of his own story.  Funnier still is that, despite the majority of the focus being on Tony, Adrian is the driving force behind the rest of the novel.

In second half of Part I (confused yet?  Fuck it, I’m not changing my language now…), Tony and his friends part and head off to school.  Tony speaks to us about his experiences dating a girl named Veronica… and mostly, it seems terrible.  They never quite seem to get along quite well enough and, naturally break up.

At this point, Adrian re-enters the picture and tragedy strikes.  For whom?  I won’t ruin it for you, but Part I comes to a close and Part II begins nearly forty years later.

From age sixty (I’m approximating because I can’t find my note of the page that may or may not mention Tony’s age), we find Tony looking back at his life.  Divorced, though pleasantly, with a child and grandchildren, Tony is now retired and has much time to sift through memories of his earlier life and he does so.  Until his memories catch up with him and he is forced to see the truth about how he acted when he was younger.

The final two thirds of the book (that is, Part II) is sad… and a bit off putting throughout.  Therefore, the best part of the book.  Tony struggles to adjust to a world with Facebook and e-mail while simultaneously struggling to come to grips with the inaccuracies and inadequacies of his memory and attempting to bridge the gaps in his relationships (or at the very least, understanding why he’s having trouble).

The book, much like Travels in the Scriptorium, is quick and lends itself to being read in a single sitting (or two, if you want to read each part separately).  Like other short books I’ve read this recently (Travels in the Scriptorium, The Longer I Walk The Smaller I Am) The Sense of an Ending gets its literary strength from brevity.

The novel doesn’t traipse around like a squashed cockroach.  It ends when it needs to and doesn’t provide many answers, giving the reader ample opportunity to fill in the blanks.  A large story in a small book and well worth reading (and brief enough to re-read as well!).

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