I’m retired now. I have my flat with my possessions. I keep up with a few drinking pals, and have some women friends — platonic, of course. (And they are not part of the story either.) I’m a member of the local history society, though less excited than some about what the metal detectors unearth. A while ago, I volunteered to run the library at the local hospital; I go round the wards delivering, collecting, recommending. It gets me out, and it’s good to do something useful; also, I meet some new people. Sick people, of course; dying people as well. But at least I shall know my way around the hospital when my turn comes.That quote comes from the end of the first section of Julian Barnes’ engaging novel/novella The Sense of an Ending (it is only 150 pages in my version) — I have bumped the quote to the top of this review because it is a concise summary of the life of the narrator, Tony Webster. Now in his early sixties, he is contemplating his approaching end, but that also means looking back at what was, or, even more important, what might have been.
And that’s a life, isn’t it? Some achievements and some disappointments. It’s been interesting to me, though I wouldn’t complain or be amazed if others found it less so. Maybe, in a way, Adrian knew what he was doing. Not that I would have missed my own life for anything, you understand.
As the title of the novel implies, this is a memory book. And, as the quote makes clear, Tony will be ignoring the mundane which has dominated his life (“they are not part of the story, either”). Rather, he will be considering the exceptional that has floated to the top as he looks backward at a life lived. Here is his summary of what is motivating him in this project:
And no, it wasn’t shame I now felt, or guilt, but something rarer in my life and stronger than both: remorse. A feeling which is more complicated, curdled, and primeval. Whose chief charcteristic is that nothing can be done about it: too much time has passed, too much damage has been done, for amends to be made. Even so, forty years on, I sent Veronica an email apologising for my letter.
Barnes has drawn a powerful scale for measuring the impact of things we wish we haven’t done with that paragraph. “Shame” is relatively easy to deal with, “guilt” can be assuaged at least to a point, “remorse” is the emotion that we cannot escape as a result of some things we wish we had not done.
Julian Barnes was born in 1946, I was born in 1948 — so I fit the demographic of this first-person book. As he writes elsewhere in the novel, when we are maturing we often look ahead to the ambitions we have and what we will “be” in life, including what we will think in our final decades — as youths, however, we don’t consider how we will look back on the choices that produced that state of mind. The Sense of an Ending is about both those choices and the memories (“remorse”) that they provoke several decades on.
So. Who are Adrian and Veronica?
Adrian is a student who arrives at Tony’s school late in the pre-university process, when all the students’ attention is focused on getting the grades to open the doors to what will come next. Tony is already part of a gang of three with “serious” pretensions (‘That’s philosophically self-evident’ is a favorite argument ender) but Adrian, without any initiative on his part, is absorbed into the group and makes it a foursome.
He is obviously brilliant and illustrates that on his first day at school when, challenged by the history master about the nature of history, he states that it comes down to “something happened”. (This is an elaboration on a previous contribution from another student who has amended his first definition — “there was unrest, sir” — to “I’d say there was great unrest, sir”.) In a later lesson, discussing the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand which provoked the Great War, Adrian expands his notion:
“But of course, my desire to ascribe responsibility might be more a reflection 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 the version that is being put in front of us.”
Take that as a warning about how much credibility to ascribe to Tony’s account or, perhaps more usefully, what attitude should be taken to joining him in his exploration of a central event in his personal history. Tony’s memory expedition is centred on Veronica who may (or may not) have been his first love. Tony and Veronica met at Bristol early in his university career and she was far “smarter” than he. She mocks his taste for Dvorak and Tchaikovsky (not to mention that he actually hides his soundtrack recording of Un Homme et Une Femme since it would not even make her starting gate) but does show respect for his color-coded Penguins and Pelicans (unread charity shop purchases, alas), although her taste runs more to poets like Ted Hughes.
And then there’s the sex, or rather lack of it — as Barnes perceptively observes, for most of of us who came to maturity in the Sixties, the “permissive Sixties” didn’t really arrive until, too late, the Seventies. This is a long quote, but it is worth the effort because it captures the sexual tension of the time (now recognized, of course, as being very permissive) and illustrates the way that Barnes anchors Tony’s memories in a perceptively-observed broader world:
Veronica wasn’t very different from other girls of the time. They were physically comfortable with you, took your arm in public, kissed you until the color rose, and might consciously press their breasts against you as long as there were about five layers of clothing between flesh and flesh. They would be perfectly aware of what was going on in your trousers without even mentioning it. And that was all, for quite a while. Some girls allowed more: you heard of those who went in for mutual masturbation, others who permitted ‘full sex’, as it was known. You couldn’t appreciate the gravity of that ‘full’ unless you’d had a lot of the half-empty kind. And then, as the relationship continued, there were certain implicit trade-offs, some based on whim, others on promise and commitment — up to what the poet called ‘a wrangle for a ring’.
Tony doesn’t get ‘full sex’ — ‘It doesn’t feel right’ is Veronica’s response when he tries. He does get a weekend visit to her parent’s home in Chislehurst, Kent; his only suitcase is so large that it prompts her father to observe ‘Looks like you’re planning to move in, young man’ when Tony is picked up at the train station.
The aging Tony’s memories of this watershed weekend are sparked by a totally unexpected event. He receives from the executor of Veronica’s mother’s estate a letter saying that he has been left a bequest of £500 and two documents, but only one is attached. While he and Veronica ended their relationship more than 40 years ago (yes, she and Adrian did get together which sparked the incident that has produced his remorse), the executor’s letter does open the Pandora’s box that was his youth.
Barnes does not waste a single word in this wonderful short novel — I’ve tried to include enough quotes to show that, but rest assured I have not spoiled the book if you choose to read it. I can think immediately of two other excellent short novels that attracted Booker Prize attention: Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day and Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach (both also “memory” novels) and The Sense of an Ending deserves to be ranked with both.
I will add a caveat to my positive assessment: I cannot set aside my own age when it comes to appreciating the way that Barnes has captured the process of looking back into what produced this current stage of life and left the trails of “remorse” that he explores in the book — as Tony makes clear, he leaves out the ordinary and concentrates only on this exceptional stream of experience. For me, The Sense of an Ending was a very special book that demanded — and got — an immediate second reading. It was worth it and I will not be disappointed at all to see this slim volume on the Booker shortlist; indeed, I will be disappointed if it is not there.