…Julian Barnes’s Booker Prize-winning “The Sense of an Ending.” It’s a slim (55,000 word) first person narrative, told in two parts, by Anthony (“Tony”) Webster, retired, divorced, a grandfather. “How often do we tell our life story?” he asks us. “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.” Well, that was right up my alley!
The first part of Tony’s life story involve his relationship with three friends in adolescence and his relationship in college with Veronica, his first girl friend. In the second part, set in Tony’s present, an unexpected event leads him to investigate and reconsider the experiences he had previously described, which leads to a surprise revelation and an even more surprising ending.
I did not quite understand the ending. Rather than look back through the book, I sought clarification on-line. “The ending of The Sense of an Ending,” I Googled. It turned out I was not alone. I found a couple well-reasoned, thoughtful pieces where reviewers explained what had happened. I found many well-reasoned thoughtful comments posted by readers in response to these explanations. I found three of four equally convincing, contradictory explanations of which characters had done what and why.
This made me think. Actually these characters DID nothing. They DO NOT exist. Their ACTIONS occur only to the extent Barnes puts words on a page. I believe it is true that an author may not know the full meaning of what he has written. But I am not sure characters of his creation can do things he did not enable them to do. Is this discussion, I wondered, a gimmick Barnes has pulled off, or is it a significant revelation about the relationship between writers and readers?
When you’ve finished the book, we can discuss it further. (And just as an aside, let me say that Adele, who is reading the book now, has discovered she read it a couple years ago and can’t remember a thing about it. Neither can the friend who leant it to her. What the hell does that say?)