Julian Barnes is the author of the 2011 Man Booker Prize winning novel The Sense of an Ending. It is an intriguing novel with an ending that many of our readers found unsatisfactory, like the ending of a mystery novel which the author deliberately wishes to leave unresolved.
It is also a novel that speculates a great deal on philosophical matters, starting with Albert Camus’ fundamental question: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” That schoolboys in senior classes are not only seized of such questions, but also incisively dissect matters of memory and history is credit to the school system.
Adrian Finn is the precocious youngster whom the schoolmasters recognise as scholarship material from the start. Tony Webster, though not as bright, becomes his friend and they have a fateful shared relationship with the same girl, Veronica. Tony gets off unscathed, but Adrian who gets second dibs ends up a suicide; we never learn why, but are encouraged to surmise by Veronica who repeatedly says about Tony that he never ‘gets it’. Neither do we readers, in spite of the algebraic relationships Adrain leaves behind as cryptic clues.
Cake for Priya's Birthday!
An alluring feature of Barnes’ writing are the numerous allusions to the poems of Philip Larkin, scattered throughout. Joe and KumKum saw the film of the novel, but it deviates so widely toward the end that it carries the sense of a different ending, made more palatable to the reader by the director, Ritesh Batra, who made his debut with The Lunchbox in 2013.
Full Account and Record of the Reading
Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
Present: Hemjith, Thommo, Zakia, Sara, Saraswathy, Priya, Shobha
Present Virtually: Joe (with voice reading and comments)
Absent: Sunil, Preeti, Ankush, Kumkum
Zakia & Pamela
The members discussed the novel threadbare, presenting their different points
of view at the reading. Everyone agreed the novel was weak, that it had a disappointing denouement; however the prose was strong.
Saras & Hemjit
The group felt that though Barnes built and carried the suspense of Adrian Jr’s
paternity, the conclusion left many questions unanswered with its obscure end.
Thommo said that the prose was evocative and conversations among protagonists were at a high level. It was rich in thought and philosophy.
The reading Joe chose was the forgotten harsh letter Tony wrote to Adrian wishing evil upon him and ex-girlfriend Veronica. The novel turns on this letter.
From p. 95 middle to p. 97 middle “How often do we tell … your joint and anointed heads, Tony”
Uncharacteristically for an English novelist, Julian Barnes introduces a novel of relationships in which philosophical questions of suicide, the deceptions of memory, and the nature of history dominate the discussions started by Adrian Finn a new boy at school — rather precocious at this age, one would say. His school-masters mark him as scholarship material for the university and he makes it to Cambridge. Apart from his studies at the university he befriends Veronica who was cast off as a girl-friend by his admiring friend in school, Tony Webster.
Tony is the narrator. Adrian commits suicide at Cambridge. Years pass and Tony, happily married for twenty years is now divorced and retired. The novel takes a turn for mystery when Tony receives a note from the solicitor of his ex girl-friend’s mother leaving him £500 and the diary of Adrian Finn as a legacy with a letter he wrote once ago to Adrian.
The rest of the book is about his aborted attempt get the diary now in Veronica’s possession and the missing page from the solicitor’s envelope which she had detached apparently. Tracking it down, Tony is shocked to see how vicious was the letter he once sent to Adrian upon learning of his intent to pursue Veronica as a love interest. She had played so hard to get with him that he labeled her a ‘cockteaser’. He warns Adrian that Veronica is someone ‘who will manipulate your inner self while while holding hers back from you.’ He ends by invoking a curse of acid rain on their ‘joint and anointed heads.’
Tony discovers he was not the amiable guy he thought he was. In the rest of the novel he undertakes a process of reform, if possible. He pursues a detective quest for the diary, enlisting his ex, Margaret, and confiding in her. Tony encounters the brick wall of non-cooperation by Veronica who deigns to meet him but has burnt the diary. She talks little even when they do meet.
She sends him e-mail, “You just don’t get it, do you? But then you never did.” But he never finds out what the ‘it’ is that he doesn’t get. The reference is repeated so many times in the novel that he even thinks of it as an epitaph for himself, “Tony Webster — He Never Got It.”
Neither does the reader, being left only with the cryptic clue of the fragment copied for him by the solicitor of what remains of the diary:
It is a Non-Sense of an Ending and at the end the reader is left pondering:
- Who is the real father of the handicapped man? Adrian or Tony?
- Who is the real mother of the handicapped man? Sarah? (Veronica’s mother?)
- Who is Mary?
- Why did Adrian commit suicide?
- What is the ‘it’ Tony is blamed for never ‘getting’?
‘History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.’
"There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide." - Albert Camus, from the extended philosophical essay, The Myth of Sisyphus
Memory is what we thought we’d forgotten.
One of the literary aspects of the novel is the number of allusions to poems of Philip Larkin:
1. When describing the thus-far-and-no-further relationship with Veronica, Tony uses the phrase in quotes “a wrangle for a ring”, taken from Larkin’s poem Annus Mirabilis where he sets 1963 as a date when sexual intercourse began and writes
Up till then there’d only been
A sort of bargaining,
A wrangle for a ring,
A sort of bargaining,
A wrangle for a ring,
2. When Tony considers life and the experience it brings he remarks “And as the poet pointed out, there is a difference between addition and increase.” The lines are from Dockery and Son, when the poet compares himself, childless, to his school friend Dockery who had a son:
Why did he think adding meant increase?
To me it was dilution.
To me it was dilution.
3. At the end Larkin’s poem Born Yesterday is the source of the benediction, “May you be ordinary” from a poem for Sally Amis, the third daughter of his friend, novelist, Kingsley Amis:
May you be ordinary;
Have, like other women,
An average of talents:
There are other more veiled references to Larkin in this novel.
Hemjit felt the above pages very intimidating and has a connection and clue to the plot and to Veronica's unpredictable nature.
Though imagined by Tony it seems to make sense when you reflect. The family is surely deranged he feels and there are unsavoury references to unhealthy relationships within the family when he imagines her father's 'beery leering 'during her bath time and bed time: also the more than a sibling cuddle between her and her brother.
Hemjit wonders whether it was such intimacy between Veronica and the male members of her family that instilled envy in Sarah, her mother that led her to seduce Adrian and her earlier attempt to seduce the naive Tony too.
Margaret's reflection that in life everybody is abused has some impact for it's veracity he feels.
Hemjit also feels that Tony's conjecture is right when he observes the reason that Veronica slept with him immediately after he broke up, was just to later accuse him of deserting her after they went to bed, as though he was interested only in her body.
Hemjit felt the theory of Tony's very disturbing but meaningful when he observes it is the abused, who goes to any length to avoid further abuses who poses more of a threat than the abuser.
Hemjit also wonders why Veronica went out of her way to bring about a situation where Sarah and Tony would be left, when she lied about Tony's desire for a lie-in.
He also feels that Tony still wants Veronica back in his life.
I read the opening pages of the book, which begins with flashes of recalled imagery.
One of my arguments, after having read some others’ comments on the book, on the Internet, were from the sentence that appears in the first passage: “What you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.”
I go with, quite an unlikely argument, for diversity’s sake, the idea that Adrian Jr. was son of Tony Webster and Mary, Veronica’s mother, and that their meeting that resulted in the birth of the differently-abled child was a blur in memory, an act that he wished to banish from his mind. But it had happened, as an act to spite, at the time when Veronica and Adrian Finn had become friends.
Though nobody at the reading seemed convinced about this point, it could be a possibility.
As Priya had selected the book, she introduced the author and expressed her immediate love for the novel - story, narrative and plot. Priya pointed out that the book is replete with the author’s observations on life - the “philosophically self evident” meditations on aging, memory, marriage, suicide and such things. On marriage he writes: Marriage is a long dull meal with the pudding served first, a comment that was discussed with much humour.
Priya wished to listen to the theme from the film: Un Homme et Une Femme to delve deeper into the mind of the young Antony Webster.
Anouk Aimée and Jean-Louis Trintignant from the film ‘Un Homme et Une Femme’
She sensed that Barnes was perhaps influenced by Eastern (Hindu) philosophy though she does not have any conclusive proof. Her guesses stem from two references, one to cremation and rebirth when Barnes writes: page 105: Does this make sense if we apply it to our individual lives? To die when something new is being born – even if that something new is our very own self?
Barnes is a self-proclaimed atheist and hence these are not religious observations but philosophic statements, said Priya.
As Priya did not write down minutes of the reading she recalls that someone concluded Tony Webster was a loser in life.
The choco-chip cake was for Priya’s birthday in the month of September.
Thommo read portions from The Sense of an Ending which dwelt on the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of the Austro Hungarian Empire. He had been to the Latin Bridge in Sarajevo on which the assassination took place and had written about it in his book On the Road Again. So he read relevant portions from that book which dwelt with the most famous assassination in history. He told the group that there was a museum on one end of the bridge which had on the outside a framed photograph of the assassin Gavrilo Princip, a Serbian nationalist, and showed everyone present a photograph of the Latin Bridge from his adventure book of the car journey in Europe titled On the Road Again.
Gavrilo Princip who shot Archduke Ferdinand and started WWI
Like Julian Barnes, he could not fathom the reason for the outbreak of WWI and why no less than four great European powers had gone to war – a war in which over seventeen million died and twenty million were wounded and that, too, over a negligible country like Serbia.
How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but—mainly—to ourselves.
Dear Adrian—or rather, Dear Adrian and Veronica (hello, Bitch, and welcome to this letter),
Well you certainly deserve one another and I wish you much joy. I hope you get so involved that the mutual damage will be permanent. I hope you regret the day I introduced you. And I hope that when you break up, as you inevitably will—I give you six months, which your shared pride will extend to a year, all the better for fucking you up, says I—you are left with a lifetime of bitterness that will poison your subsequent relationships. Part of me hopes you’ll have a child, because I’m a great believer in time’s revenge, yea unto the next generation and the next. See Great Art. But revenge must be on the right people, i.e. you two (and you’re not great art, just a cartoonist’s doodle). So I don’t wish you that. It would be unjust to inflict on some innocent foetus the prospect of discovering that it was the fruit of your loins, if you’ll excuse the poeticism. So keep rolling the Durex onto his spindly cock, Veronica. Or perhaps you haven’t let him go that far yet?
Still, enough of the courtesies. I have just a few precise things to say to each of you.
Adrian: you already know she’s a cockteaser, of course— though I expect you told yourself she was engaged in a Struggle with Her Principles, which you as a philosopher would employ your grey cells to help her overcome. If she hasn’t let you Go All the Way yet, I suggest you break up with her, and she’ll be round your place with sodden knickers and a three-pack, eager to give it away. But cockteasing is also a metaphor: she is someone who will manipulate your inner self while holding hers back from you. I leave a precise diagnosis to the headshrinkers—which might vary according to the day of the week—and merely note her inability to imagine anyone else’s feelings or emotional life. Even her own mother warned me against her. If I were you, I’d check things out with Mum—ask her about damage a long way back. Of course, you’ll have to do this behind Veronica’s back, because boy is that girl a control freak. Oh, and she’s also a snob, as you must be aware, who only took up with you because you were soon to have BA Cantab after your name. Remember how much you despised Brother Jack and his posh friends? Is that who you want to run with now? But don’t forget: give her time, and she’ll look down on you just as she looks down on me.
Veronica: interesting, that joint letter. Your malice mixed with his priggishness. Quite a marriage of talents. Like your sense of social superiority versus his sense of intellectual superiority. But don’t think you can outsmart Adrian as you (for a time) outsmarted me. I can see your tactics— isolate him, cut him off from his old friends, make him dependent on you, etc., etc. That might work in the short term. But in the long? It’s just a question of whether you can get pregnant before he discovers you’re a bore. And even if you do nail him down, you can look forward to a lifetime of having your logic corrected, to breakfast-table pedantry and stifled yawns at your airs and graces. I can’t do anything to you now, but time can. Time will tell. It always does.
Compliments of the season to you, and may the acid rain fall on your joint and anointed heads.
What did I mean by “damage”? It was only a guess; I didn’t have any real evidence. But whenever I looked back on that unhappy weekend, I realised that it hadn’t been just a matter of a rather naïve young man finding himself ill at ease among a posher and more socially skilled family. That was going on too, of course. But I could sense a complicity between Veronica and her heavy-footed, heavy-handed father, who treated me as substandard. Also between Veronica and Brother Jack, whose life and deportment she clearly regarded as nonpareil: he was the appointed judge when she asked publicly of me—and the question gets more condescending with each repetition—“He’ll do, won’t he?” On the other hand, I saw no complicity at all with her mother, who doubtless recognised her for what she was. How did Mrs. Ford have the initial chance to warn me against her daughter? Because that morning—the first morning after my arrival—Veronica had told everyone I wanted a lie-in, and gone off with her father and brother. No such exchange between us justified that invention. I never had lie-ins. I don’t even have them now.
When I wrote to Adrian, I wasn’t at all clear myself what I meant by “damage.” And most of a lifetime later, I am only slightly clearer. My mother-in-law (who happily is not part of this story) didn’t think much of me but was at least candid about it, as she was about most things. She once observed—when there was yet another case of child abuse filling the papers and television news reports—“I reckon we were all abused.” Am I suggesting that Veronica was the victim of what they nowadays call “inappropriate behaviour”: beery leering from her father at bathtime or bedtime, something more than a sibling cuddle with her brother? How could I know? Was there some primal moment of loss, some withdrawal of love when it was most needed, some overheard exchange from which the child concluded that …? Again, I cannot know. I have no evidence, anecdotal or documentary. But I remember what Old Joe Hunt said when arguing with Adrian: that mental states can be inferred from actions. That’s in history—Henry VIII and all that. Whereas in the private life, I think the converse is true: that you can infer past actions from current mental states.
I certainly believe we all suffer damage, one way or another. How could we not, except in a world of perfect parents, siblings, neighbours, companions? And then there is the question, on which so much depends, of how we react to the damage: whether we admit it or repress it, and how this affects our dealings with others. 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.
You might think this is rubbish— preachy, self-justificatory rubbish. You might think that I behaved towards Veronica like a typically callow male, and that all my “conclusions” are reversible. For instance, “After we broke up, she slept with me” flips easily into “After she slept with me, I broke up with her.” You might also decide that the Fords were a normal middle-class English family on whom I was chippily foisting bogus theories of damage; and that Mrs. Ford, instead of being tactfully concerned on my behalf, was displaying an indecent jealousy of her own daughter. You might even ask me to apply my “theory” to myself and explain what damage I had suffered a long way back and what its consequences might be: for instance, how it might affect my reliability and truthfulness. I’m not sure I could answer this, to be honest.
One afternoon Old Joe Hunt, as if picking up Adrian’s earlier challenge, asked us to debate the origins of the First World War: specifically, the responsibility of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassin for starting the whole thing ooff. Back then, we were most of us absolutists. We liked Yes v. No, Praise v. Blame, Guilt v. Innocence—or, in Marshall’s case, Unrest v. Great Unrest. We liked a game that ended in a win and loss, not a draw. And so for some, the Serbian gunman, whose name is long gone from my memory, had one hundred per cent individual responsibility: take him out of the equation, and the war would never have happened. Others preferred the one hundred per cent responsibility of historical forces, which had placed the antagonistic nations on an inevitable collision course: “Europe was a powder keg waiting to blow,” and so on. The more anarchic, like Colin, argued that everything was down to chance, that the world existed in a state of perpetual chaos, and only some primitive storytelling instinct, itself doubtless a hangover from religion, retrospectively imposed meaning on what might or might not have happened.
Hunt gave a brief nod to Colin’s attempt to undermine everything, as if morbid disbelief was a natural by-product of adolescence, something to be grown out of. Masters and parents used to remind us irritatingly that they too had once been young, and so could speak with authority. It’s just a phase, they would insist. You’ll grow out of it; life will teach you reality and realism. But back then we declined to acknowledge that they had ever been anything like us, and we knew that we grasped life—and truth, and morality, and art—far more clearly than our compromised elders.
“Finn, you’ve been quiet. You started this ball rolling. You are, as it were, our Serbian gunman.” Hunt paused to let the allusion take effect. “Would you care to give usvthe benefit of your thoughts?”
“I don’t know, sir.” “What don’t you know?” “Well, in one sense, I can’t know what it is that I don’t know. That’s philosophically self-evident.” He left one of those slight pauses in which we again wondered if he was engaged in subtle mockery or a high seriousness beyond the rest of us. “Indeed, isn’t the whole business of ascribing responsibility a kind of cop-out? We want to blame an individual so that everyone else is exculpated. Or we blame a historical process as a way of exonerating individuals. Or it’s all anarchic chaos, with the same consequence. It seems to me that there is—was—a chain of individual responsibilities, all of which were necessary, but not so long a chain that everybody can simply blame everyone else. But of course, my desire to ascribe responsibility might be more a rejection of my own cast of mind than a fair analysis of what happened. That’s one of the central problems of history, isn’t it, sir? 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.”
There was a silence. And no, he wasn’t taking the piss, not in the slightest. Old Joe Hunt looked at his watch and smiled. “Finn, I retire in five years. And I shall be happy to give you a reference if you care to take over.” And he wasn’t taking the piss either.
I remember, in no particular order: —a shiny inner wrist; —steam rising from a wet sink as a hot frying pan is laughingly tossed into it; —gouts of sperm circling a plughole, before being sluiced down the full length of a tall house; —a river rushing nonsensically upstream, its wave and wash lit by half a dozen chasing torchbeams; —another river, broad and grey, the direction of its flow disguised by a stiff wind exciting the surface; —bathwater long gone cold behind a locked door. This last isn’t something I actually saw, but what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.
We live in time—it holds us and moulds us—but I’ve never felt I understood it very well. And I’m not referring to theories about how it bends and doubles back, or may exist elsewhere in parallel versions. No, I mean ordinary, everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly: ticktock, click-clock. Is there anything more plausible than a second hand? And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time’s malleability. Some emotions speed it up, others slow it down; occasionally, it seems to go missing—until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return. I’m not very interested in my schooldays, and don’t feel any nostalgia for them. But school is where it all began, so I need to return briefly to a few incidents that have grown into anecdotes, to some approximate memories which time has deformed into certainty. If I can’t be sure of the actual events any more, I can at least be true to the impressions those facts left. That’s the best I can manage.
There were three of us, and he now made the fourth. We hadn’t expected to add to our tight number: cliques and pairings had happened long before, and we were already beginning to imagine our escape from school into life. His name was Adrian Finn, a tall, shy boy who initially kept his eyes down and his mind to himself. For the first day or two, we took little notice of him: at our school there was no welcoming ceremony, let alone its opposite, the punitive induction. We just registered his presence and waited.
The masters were more interested in him than we were. They had to work out his intelligence and sense of discipline, calculate how well he’d previously been taught, and if he might prove “scholarship material.” On the third morning of that autumn term, we had a history class with Old Joe Hunt, wryly affable in his three-piece suit, a teacher whose system of control depended on maintaining sufficient but not excessive boredom.