“Some Achievements and Some Disappointments”: Julian Barnes’s “The Sense of an Ending”

Julian Barnes has long been dogged by accusations of detachment. There are many who find his prose style dry, his novels cold fish, more intellectual exercises than genuine attempts to imagine oneself into the predicaments of another. Mostly obviously, his enthusiasm for the essay form gives some weight to this characterisation of his work: from Flaubert’s Parrot to A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, his novels have often eschewed fiction for fabulation – the weaving of facts into a kind of narrative-as-argument. Many of his books which do not follow this rubric, such as England, England or Before She Met Me, are broad kinds of farce; even Arthur & George, one of Barnes’s most successful and most traditional novels, has something of the critic about it.

Thus, then, Leo Robson’s stinging review of Barnes’s latest novella, The Sense of an Ending, in the New Statesman:

Yet you don’t need Josipovici’s allegiances and antipathies to feel enervated by Barnes’s “smartness”. Like Amis, especially in The Information and The Pregnant Widow, and Craig Raine in Heartbreak, Barnes possesses not just an ironic but an almost post-novelistic sensibility. I say almost: theirs is a form of scepticism about artifice and stories – but with a strain of sentimentalism, a taste for the plaintive and dewy-eyed when it comes to sex, fading vitality and death. But knowingness predominates.

This is not a criticism you can really argue with on point of fact (though there’s a subjectivism to that word ‘sentimental’) – Barnes’s postmodernism has indeed always driven him to undermine the very form he has adopted. Certainly, The Sense of an Ending does not help the case for the defense: despite its slightness, it is repetitive and familiar, and though its lines are very finely drawn they are for the most part rather functional. It opens with four boys discussing history, philosophy and literature with their sixth form masters – “there is one line of thought according to which all you can truly say of any historical event – even the outbreak of the First World War, for example – is that ‘something happened'” [pg. 5] – and, either by accident or design, the reader never quite shakes the feeling of being part of the class.

“Does character develop over time? In novels, of course it does: otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a story. But in life? I sometimes wonder. Our attitudes and opinions change, we develop new habits and eccentricities; but that’s something different, more like decoration. Perhaps character reassembles intelligence, except that character peaks a little later: between twenty and thirty, say. And after that, we’re just stuck with what we’ve got. We’re on our own. If so, that would explain a lot of lives, wouldn’t it? And also – if this isn’t too grand a word – our tragedy.” [pg. 103]

The book’s narrator, Tony Webster, is a dyspeptic, contented, yet somehow restless,  retired arts administrator. Years ago, in his first years of university, he enjoyed an intense but frustrating relationship with Veronica, a woman he couldn’t understand; though settled gratefully into his 60s, with a single divorce and daughter behind him, he finds himself turning that time over in his head when Veronica’s mother leaves him in her will the diary of one of those four schoolboys with whom he begins his narrative. Adrian Finn went to Oxbridge, was fiercely clever, and ended up with Veronica following her break-up with Tony. Our narrator has placed Adrian on a kind of pedestal in the story of his own life – dead young, he stands for all the undisappointed potential and aspiration of one’s early adulthood. The novel is the tale of the complication of that reading.

Unfortunately, Tony himself – in many ways a quintessential Barnesian protagonist, all mordant wit and awareness of his own limitations – is also prone to long explications like the one above. The traditional strength of the novella – its tautness and brevity – here seeks to work against Barnes’s purpose somewhat: so schematic is Tony’s thinking, and so fleeting every sentence, that the colour and detail of the story (that is, its complications) are lost in the rush towards the novel’s climax – or perhaps the argument’s QED. Tony is for sure an unreliable narrator, meaning his conclusions can for the realy only be provisional; but there is still something dry about the novel’s discipline.

Barnes has in recent years offered himself as a Home Counties Roth, meditating satirically on death and mortality. Roth’s late masterpiece, Everyman, is about the same length as The Sense of an Ending, and yet is somehow far more supple. I would defend Barnes’s oeuvre – for me, humorous, swaggering, careful and wise – against any Leo Robson of this world; his latest effort, however, is very nearly as guilty as charged. It is impressively, carefully, constructed – but perhaps a little too so. It has the usual jokes and good sense of Barnes, but seems insufficiently layered to make it beyond the Booker’s longlist.