Thursday, November 17, 2011

Fiction: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Who’s to say, when we start a life, where we will end up? What will we do? What will we regret? What, if anything, will we understand? These are a few of the questions posed by Julian Barnes’ Man Booker Award-winning novel, The Sense of an Ending.

At just 160 pages or so, the book is deceptive. It’s spare but not sparse. It’s short but not light. Instead, it is a rich tapestry of starts, stops, decisions, regrets, misunderstandings, resentments and rapprochements, all concerning an Englishman named Tony Webster and some of the people in his life, notably his first lover and his ex-wife.

Barnes sketches Tony’s years in broad strokes, in little more than an outline. Tony’s schooling, his first girlfriend, his subsequent relationships, his marriage, his work, his divorce, and the latter years of his life. When I say broad strokes, I mean broad. While Tony’s schooling and first girlfriend are given the early part of the novel, almost everything else is summed up in a few paragraphs, all except for the latter part of his life, which occupies most of this novel. It’s here, when Tony is what might be called old but not elderly, that his search for answers takes hold of him like nothing else in his life ever has.

Written in the first person, with a sort of blasé intensity, if that’s possible, Tony discusses his life as if he were looking at a painting he knows intimately. As if he’s painted it himself. As if it’s not a work in progress, but a finished work that warrants close, almost microscopic examination.

In one way, The Sense of an Ending is a Renoir-type Impressionist painting: all swaths of color, one blending and sometimes crashing into another. In another way, it’s more like Seurat: it’s not the brushstrokes that matter, but the dots. Every detail. What happened to Tony’s marriage? What happened with his first, earlier, girlfriend? And why did his close friend commit suicide, ending abruptly a life of such promise?

What happened appears to be the key question here. Tony seems to believe that by knowing what happened, he will also understand what happened. This point is the core of the novel, the desire for knowledge, but it ends up a shattering disappointment because it isn’t true; knowing does not necessarily provide understanding. But as he pulls this tightly wound knot apart, Barnes uses language that’s forthright, almost matter-of-fact. In Tony’s voice, there is great pain behind each word, as if he is struggling under the weight of what the words mean as much as what they say.

What this wonderful, heartbreaking novel shows us -- what Tony learns, eventually -- is that knowing something may provide a certain clarity, but not the kind one yearns for when examining one’s life so closely. One wants answers, yes, but answers require more than facts. Facts may give one the sense of an ending, surely, but only that. ◊

Tony Buchsbaum, a contributing editor of January Magazine and Blue Coupe, lives in central New Jersey with his wife and sons. These days, he is writing his second novel. Again.

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