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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

THE SENSE OF AN ENDING--JULIAN BARNES' INVITATION TO SOLVE A LIFE

In the case of Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, the title says it all. I think.  What does it mean?  Confused?  So am I.  I finished this short novel and enjoyed it immensely.  But I’m not sure I totally get it, and, of course, I can’t ask you at this time to give me your thoughts on it. 

Our protagonist, Tony Webster, is about my age.  He grew up in a time I am totally familiar with and totally at home reading about.  I recognize so much of what he says and what he does.  Perhaps every age sits with a kind of smug philosophical elitism feeling contempt for those considered too plebeian to see the truth about life as clearly as they do.  “Understanding the world” and denigrating it as it currently is usually occurs over a beer.  At any rate, Tony and his three friends see themselves as young philosophers throwing around German terms and names of established philosophers as a way of affirming their superiority over the masses.  The best thinker among them is Adrian, and he is respected by his peers.

Adrian eventually becomes the center of life’s puzzle for Tony whose own life and loves turn into what he himself terms ordinary: a university girlfriend, Veronica, who eventually chooses Adrian, a failed marriage where he retains the friendship of his former wife, Margaret, a daughter and grandchild.  As a retiree, he volunteers in a hospital library.

When he asks Margaret over a friendly lunch if she left him because of him, she enigmatically replies that she left him "because of us."  

Life is never really ordinary, and this book is about growing up, remembering back in whatever way we are capable, being deeply hurt and deeply hurting others, and trying to finally understand what life is all about. 

Tony tells his story, so there is so much about truth and about the other characters to which we are not privy.  Additionally, there is the always constant question about what is history?  What is memory?  How accurate is either?

And I, always interested in the title’s meaning, am not quite sure I get it.  Veronica tells Tony he “will never get it.”  What’s “it”?

Indeed, this book was suggested by my sister-in-law with the warning that it is “different.”  She wanted to discuss it when I was done, and I would like to discuss it with her too.  I want to see how she viewed The Sense of an Ending.  I’d like to discuss it with any of you who have read it too.

Despite my questions, I highly recommend this novel.  It’s thoroughly intriguing.  It’s short and reads easily.  Barnes has a flowing, descriptive style, and I got to really know Tony Webster and to understand his dilemma.  But because of the first person narration, I never understood some of the other characters because Tony never does.  Oh well, it is so nice to dwell on a book as much as I’ve been dwelling on this one.

Here are some of my favorite quotations:

“…of course we were pretentious—what else is youth for?”
“…we knew we grasped life—and truth, and morality, and art….”
“…our fear: that Life wouldn’t turn out to be like Literature.”

Do you remember feeling and thinking like that?  I do.

And then the truth about the “sixties”—

“If you’ll excuse a brief history lesson: most people didn’t experience “the sixties” until the seventies.  Which meant, logically, that most people in the sixties were still experiencing the fifties—or, in my case, bits of both decades side by side.  Which made things rather confusing.”

How did I know that summer that Woodstock would be what Woodstock became?  I think (after this book I’m not so sure) I remember what it was as it was happening.

Here’s a very poignant definition:

“…remorse.  A feeling which is more complicated, curdled and primeval.  Whose chief characteristic is that nothing can be done about it: too much time has passed, too much damage has been done, for amends to….”

Wow!  That is a wakeup call.

Here’ the retired-in-his 60s-Tony.  How painful is this:

“Sometimes I think the purpose of life is to reconcile us to its eventual loss by wearing us down, by proving, however long it takes, that life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”

Several times during the novel, Tony hums or sings "Time is On Our Side."  I well remember this song and sang along.  But here's another question: Is it?

In the end I was deeply touched, quite nostalgic, and somewhat puzzled.  I think I will continue to ponder the meaning of Barnes’ title as I try to get The Sense of an Ending.

    
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