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
like the ending of a mystery novel which the author deliberately
wishes to leave unresolved.
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.
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!
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
Virtually: Joe (with voice reading and comments)
Sunil, Preeti, Ankush, Kumkum
Zakia & Pamela
members discussed the novel threadbare, presenting their different
view at the reading. Everyone agreed the novel was weak, that it had a
disappointing denouement; however the prose was strong.
Saras & Hemjit
group felt that though Barnes built and carried the suspense of
the conclusion left many questions unanswered with its obscure end.
said that the prose was evocative and conversations among
protagonists were at a high level. It was rich in thought and
reading Joe chose was the forgotten harsh letter Tony wrote to Adrian
wishing evil upon him and ex-girlfriend Veronica. The novel turns on
p. 95 middle to p. 97 middle “How often do we tell … your joint
and anointed heads, Tony”
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
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
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.’
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.
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.”
does the reader, being left only with the cryptic clue of the
fragment copied for him by the solicitor of what remains of the
is a Non-Sense of an Ending and at the end the reader is left
Who is the real father of the handicapped man? Adrian or Tony?
Who is the real mother of the handicapped man? Sarah? (Veronica’s
Who is Mary?
Why did Adrian commit suicide?
What is the ‘it’ Tony is blamed for never ‘getting’?
is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of
memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.’
is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide."
- Albert Camus, from the extended philosophical essay, The Myth of
is what we thought we’d forgotten.
of the literary aspects of the novel is the number of allusions to
poems of Philip Larkin:
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
till then there’d only been A sort of bargaining, A wrangle
for a ring,
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
did he think adding meant increase? To me it was dilution.
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:
you be ordinary;
like other women,
average of talents:
are other more veiled references to Larkin in this novel.
felt the above pages very intimidating and has a connection and clue
to the plot and to Veronica's unpredictable nature.
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.
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
reflection that in life everybody is abused has some impact for it's
veracity he feels.
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.
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.
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.
also feels that Tony still wants Veronica back in his life.
read the opening pages of the book, which begins with flashes of
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.”
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.
nobody at the reading seemed convinced about this point, it could be
Priya had selected the book, she introduced the author and expressed
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.
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’
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?
is a self-proclaimed atheist and hence these are not religious
observations but philosophic statements, said Priya.
Priya did not write down minutes of the reading she recalls that
someone concluded Tony Webster was a loser in life.
choco-chip cake was for Priya’s birthday in the month of September.
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
Gavrilo Princip who shot Archduke Ferdinand and started WWI
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.
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.
Adrian—or rather, Dear Adrian and Veronica (hello, Bitch, and
welcome to this letter),
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
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?
enough of the courtesies. I have just a few precise things to say to
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
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.
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.
of the season to you, and may the acid rain
fall on your joint and
did I mean by “damage”? It was only a guess; I didn’t have
real evidence. But whenever I looked back on that
weekend, I realised that it hadn’t been just a matter of a
young man finding himself ill at ease among a posher
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
my arrival—Veronica had told everyone I wanted a lie-in,
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
I wrote to Adrian, I wasn’t at all clear myself what I meant
“damage.” And most of a lifetime later, I am only slightly
mother-in-law (who happily is not part of this story)
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
we were all abused.” Am I suggesting that Veronica was
victim of what they nowadays call “inappropriate behaviour”:
leering from her father at bathtime or bedtime, something more
sibling cuddle with her brother? How could I know? Was there
primal moment of loss, some withdrawal of love when it was
needed, some overheard exchange from which the child
…? 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
current mental states.
certainly believe we all suffer damage, one way or another. How
we not, except in a world of perfect parents, siblings,
companions? And then there is the question, on which so
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.
might think this is rubbish— preachy, self-justificatory
You might think that I behaved towards Veronica like a
callow male, and that all my “conclusions” are
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
afternoon Old Joe Hunt, as if picking up Adrian’s
challenge, asked us to debate the origins of the First World
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
equation, and the war would never have happened. Others
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
not have happened.
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
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?”
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.
philosophically self-evident.” He left one of those slight
which we again wondered if he was engaged in subtle mockery
or a high seriousness beyond the rest of us. “Indeed, isn’t the
business of ascribing responsibility a kind of cop-out? We want
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
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
that is being put in front of us.”
was a silence. And no, he wasn’t taking the piss, not in
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
remember, in no particular order:
—a shiny inner wrist;
rising from a wet sink as a hot frying pan is laughingly tossed into
—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
—another river, broad and grey, the direction of its
flow disguised by a stiff wind exciting the surface;
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.
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
it bends and doubles back, or may exist elsewhere in parallel
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
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.
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
welcoming ceremony, let alone its opposite, the punitive induction.
We just registered his presence and waited.
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
sufficient but not excessive boredom.