Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending is a gripping read – I raced through it one sitting – but it’s far from lightweight, chewing over ideas about the malleability and untrustworthiness of memory in the course of detailing the unravelling of a mystery with its origins in the narrator’s schooldays.
The (likely unreliable) narrator is Webster one of a clique of clever, cocky sixth form lads who are joined by the even cleverer Adrian Finn, who says to their History teacher things like: ‘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’. It’s a bit reminiscent of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys.
Indeed, these early exchanges reminded me of the time when I was taking History Special Paper and we were required to read EH Carr’s What Is History? – the origin of that idea about needing to ‘know the history of the historian’ and, coincidentally, the subject of a series of The Essay on Radio 3 the other week. Barnes’ narrator begins by recalling his schooldays and these exchanges to do with the past and how to assess it, not because he feels any nostalgia for them but because ‘school is where it all began’.
On another occasion, clever Adrian notes that History ‘is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation’. This becomes the defining epigraph for the Barnes’ short novel – memory is mutable, it changes with the seasons. Barnes has fun playing around with Webster’s imperfect memory and the inadequate documentation that he is left in a will.
The novella (which won the Man Booker Prize 2011) divides into two parts, the first being Webster’s memoir of those ‘book-hungry, sex-hungry, meritocratic, anarchistic’ sixth form days, culminating in the painful failure of his first sexual relationship at university, with the enigmatic Veronica. Webster recalls their awkwardness and repression at a time when it may have been the 60s, ‘but only for some people, only in certain parts of the country’. Later, we’ll find ourselves flicking back to reassess his recall because the second section undermines the veracity of these memories, as our narrator finds himself drawn into renewed contact with Veronica.
Anita Brookner, reviewing the book for The Telegraph, wrote:
It would be a mistake to dismiss this as a mere psychological thriller. It is in fact a tragedy, like Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, which it resembles. Webster remains in character throughout, as does Veronica, who is not only the prime mover but also major victim. The explanation, when it comes, is unforeseen, almost accidental, and hedged about with a wealth of humdrum detail. Its effect is disturbing – all the more so for being written with Barnes’s habitual lucidity. His reputation will surely be enhanced by this book. Do not be misled by its brevity. Its mystery is as deeply embedded as the most archaic of memories.
While Justine Jordan commented in The Guardian:
With its patterns and repetitions, scrutinising its own workings from every possible angle, the novella becomes a highly wrought meditation on ageing, memory and regret. But it gives as much resonance to what is unknown and unspoken – lost to memory – as it does to the engine of its own plot. Fiction, Barnes writes in Nothing to Be Frightened Of, “wants to tell all stories, in all their contrariness, contradiction and irresolvability”.The Sense of an Ending honours that impossible desire in a way that is novel, fertile and memorable.
EH Carr wrote in What is History?:
The belief in a hard core of historical facts existing objectively and independently of the interpretation of the historian is a preposterous fallacy, but one which it is very hard to eradicate. … Study the historian before you begin to study the facts. … when recommended to read a work of history always ask ‘what bees he has in his bonnet. … listen out for the buzzing. If you can detect none, either you are tone deaf or your historian is a dull dog. By and large, the historian will get the kind of facts he wants.
When the boys are debating the nature of history back in the 1960s, they are asked by their teacher to characterise the reign of Henry VIII. One responds: ‘There was unrest, sir …great unrest’. In the end, reflecting on what he has learned from the events that have been played out, Tony Webster muses:
There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest.
The opening of The Sense of an Ending, read by Richard Morant