Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

"It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age: when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others." Pg 88

The Sense of an Ending is narrator's Anthony Webster's reflection on his life.  The book feels like a memoir that starts with the good stuff rather than the very beginning.  We see Tony and his friends as they start college; spiteful of all they don't have and jealous of those in possession of what they want.  "You're just romanticizing what you haven't got."  Tony was guilty of this accusation as a young man and never truly manages to escape it later in life.  Seeing this earlier part of Tony's life shows him as hopelessly pretentious and wholly convinced of his own brilliance, but the self deprecating humor that he reflects back on his youth endears him to readers from the beginning.  

Adrian, a friend in Tony's gang, is a bit different from everyone else.  His intelligence attracts others to him if not making him distinctly singular.  While all Tony's friends thoughtfully muse on life and history, Adrian's seriousness leads him to contemplate, "Is the application of logic to the human condition in and of itself self-defeating?"  The first part of the book is far more philosophically engaging than driven by narrative with a post-modern 'make of this what you will' presentation of ideas.  The stories Tony relates are viewed through the lens of what Tony should have picked up on at the time or how he should have interpreted events as he looks back with the clarity of hindsight.   

Barnes' voice is beautiful and has what I thought to be a very fluid rhythm to his prose that makes the book very hard to stop reading.  While Tony questions everything in his youth and endears us to his vanity his eternal adult questioning of everything and second-guessing of much of what he has lived through does become a bit of a chore to put up with.

Years after Adrian's premature death the topic of his diary, which was bequeathed to Tony, brings Tony back into the world of his early twenties forty years later.  Veronica a one time girlfriend of both Tony and Adrian helps to drive the story forward by way of torturing Tony's memories; often filling him in on things he didn't know and altering his perception.  An oft repeated passage, "History is the certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation," nicely serves to unify the symbols of whatever concrete information Adrian's diary may hold and the abstract recall of Tony's memory. 

There is a change of focus in the last quarter or so of the book; a marked shift from the philosophical musing to a more gripping story driven search for answers.  While Barnes handles matters deftly the move felt cheap as all previous material's open-ended questions give way to a quest for definitive explanation.  It works and everything is done very well (to the point where subsequent readings will probably yield new meaning and interest) I only wish these two aspect might have merged earlier in the book instead of presenting such a large change of attention at the end.

It's a wonderfully engaging story to read even if when finished the imprint on the mind fades rather fast.  There is a little bit of everything: humor, drama, melancholy, and surprisingly, resolution.  With such broad appeal and well-crafted prose I have a hard time imagining the reader that wouldn't enjoy this subtle, short read.        

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