After that stupendous journey through The Surrendered (See WW Thurs, Oct 27), I moved on to Julian Barnes, 2011 Booker winner, The sense of an Ending. You’d think you were in good shape picking up a Booker victor, but I’ve never forgotten my disappointment with The Sea (Thurs, April 1, 2010), or for that matter with Tinkers (See WW Thurs, Mar 13, 2011) which won a Pulitzer, not a Booker, but same idea. Anyhow, this time I figured my chances were much higher with Barnes, one of my favs (or is it “faves”? Or maybe neither?) It turned out my chances were 100%.
You couldn’t find two books less like each other—The Surrendered, longish, multiple close-third pov’s, global, epochal, loquacious, refulgent. The Sense, shortish (maybe even a novella), spare, simply styled, first person, all England, pretty much domestic. Yet each a splendid piece of artistry.
Sense opens during the narrator’s schooldays—high school, or whatever the UK equivalent is. There’s a gang of three boys that soon becomes a gang of four. They do their coming of age things, physically and intellectually. Narrator Tony Webster is telling the story from some distance in time. We don’t find out how far distant for a while, and he keeps discounting himself as a narrator, often qualifying his version of events as only his version, and a version perhaps distorted by faulty recall, cautions the reader not take everything he says as gospel. Seemingly a simple man, aware of his limitations, trying to tell the truth as he sees it, but understanding that his understanding may be flawed. Thus it goes in affable and interesting and often humorous fashion, with less and less detail as the years proceed until good Tony goes through university, becomes employed, marries, divorces, and retires, having begat a daughter who has in turn produced grandchildren. End of part 1. What? You might say. I did. Is that all? You might say. I did. The answer is, not at all.
Begin part 2. Tony is in his sixties, living a quiet, unassuming life. Doing some volunteering here and there, but pretty much in a retired retirement. Then he receives a letter from a lawyer informing him that he’s been left 500 pounds and some “documents” by the mother of an old flame. Why the legacy? He doesn’t know. Hasn’t been in touch with the flame since their diddling days in university and met the mother only once on a weekend at the family house. And so Tony embarks on a quest, somewhat like June’s does in Surrendered. And it becomes apparent what Barnes has been up to. Here’s an unreliable narrator who, because he presents himself as unreliable, inspires trust. As evidence accrues, we begin to see that not only has he remembered the blandest possible version of his own history, but has seen and remembered himself in ways that often don’t match his own behavior or others’ experience of him. It’s not exactly that he presents only his good side or that he blatantly tries to excuse his errors, but that he’s put everything through a blender till distinct objects and events become indistinguishable from one another. The characters in Surrendered similarly return to their pasts to reimagine certain parts of their lives and to give themselves and the reader altered perspectives of their characters and experience. In Sense, then, it turns out that part 1 is a prologue, dumb show, backdrop created by a man in his own image of himself, an image that bears little relation to the version others would have constructed in his name. And the man whom we leave behind when we finish is an almost unrecognizable version of the one whom we met in the beginning.
It’s a fascinating and intricate construction, this small book. Despite its small size and apparent scope, it is suggestive of some grand ideas. There’s a lot of talk about the nature of history, for example. It begins as sophomoric classroom intellectualization—is history the story written by the victor, or something constructed from imagination to fill in the holes and contradictions of the documentation? There’s some philosophy—Camus and Heidegger in particular—on the nature of consciousness and the appropriateness of suicide as a response to an absurd existence. There is a suggestion of the biblical in the name and circumstances of Tony’s romantic antagonist, Veronica Mary. None of these themes have the simplistic allegorical connection of the hamhanded West of Here, (See Oct 18, 2011). And the title takes on more and differing meanings as the narrative proceeds. Themes vibrate through the story, insinuating themselves implicitly in the manner that only a true master like Barnes can accomplish.
So, Man Booker people, you did it this time. I thank you, Julian thanks you. We all thank you.