The Sense of an Ending
Julian Barnes, 2011
Winner, 2011 Man Booker Prize
The story of a man coming to terms with the mutable past, Julian Barnes's new novel is laced with his trademark precision, dexterity and insight. It is the work of one of the world's most distinguished writers.
Tony Webster and his clique first met Adrian Finn at school. Sex-hungry and book-hungry, they navigated the girl drought of gawky adolescence together, trading in affectations, in-jokes, rumour and wit. Maybe Adrian was a little more serious than the others, certainly more intelligent, but they swore to stay friends forever. Until Adrian's life took a turn into tragedy, and all of them, especially Tony, moved on and did their best to forget.
Now Tony is in middle age. He's had a career and a marriage, a calm divorce. He gets along nicely, he thinks, with his one child, a daughter, and even with his ex-wife. He's certainly never tried to hurt anybody. Memory, though, is imperfect. It can always throw up surprises, as a lawyer's letter is about to prove. The unexpected bequest conveyed by that letter leads Tony on a dogged search through a past suddenly turned murky. And how do you carry on, contentedly, when events conspire to upset all your vaunted truths? (From the publisher.)
• Aka—Dan Kavanaugh
• Birth—January 19, 1946
• Where—Leicester, England, UK
• Education—B.A., Oxford Uiversity
• Awards—Man Booker Prize; Gutenberg prize;
E.M. Forster Award; Geoffrey Faber Memorial
Prize; Prix Medicis; Prix Femina.
• Currently—lives in London, England
Julian Patrick Barnes is a contemporary English writer, and winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize, for his book The Sense of an Ending. Three of his earlier books had been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize: Flaubert's Parrot (1984), England, England (1998), and Arthur & George (2005).
Barnes has written crime fiction under the pseudonym Dan Kavanagh. Barnes is one of the best-loved English writers in France, where he has won several literary prizes, including the Prix Médicis for Flaubert’s Parrot and the Prix Femina for Talking It Over. He is an officer of L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
Although Barnes was born in Leicester, his family moved to the outer suburbs of London six weeks later. Both of his parents were teachers of French. He has said that his support for Leicester City Football Club was, aged four or five, "a sentimental way of hanging on" to his home city. He was educated at the City of London School from 1957 to 1964. At the age of 10, Barnes was told by his mother that he had "too much imagination." As an adolescent he lived in Northwood, Middlesex, the "Metroland" of which he named his first novel.
Education and early career
Barnes attended Magdalen College, Oxford, where he studied Modern Languages. After graduation, he worked as a lexicographer for the Oxford English Dictionary supplement for three years. He then worked as a reviewer and literary editor for the New Statesman and the New Review. During his time at the New Statesman, Barnes suffered from debilitating shyness, saying: "When there were weekly meetings I would be paralysed into silence, and was thought of as the mute member of staff." From 1979 to 1986 he worked as a television critic, first for the New Statesman and then for The Observer.
His first novel, Metroland (1980), is a short, semi-autobiographical story of Christopher, a young man from the London suburbs who travels to Paris as a student, finally returning to London. It deals with themes of idealism, sexual fidelity and has the three-part structure that is a common theme in Barnes' work. After reading the novel, Barnes' mother complained about the book's "bombardment" of filth. In 1983, his second novel Before She Met Me features a darker narrative, a story of revenge by a jealous historian who becomes obsessed by his second wife's past.
Barnes's breakthrough novel Flaubert's Parrot broke with the traditional linear structure of his previous novels and featured a fragmentary biographical style story of an elderly doctor, Geoffrey Braithwaite, who focuses obsessively on the life of Gustave Flaubert. The novel was published to great acclaim, especially in France, and it established Barnes as one of the pre-eminent writers of his generation. Staring at the Sun followed in 1986, another ambitious novel about a woman growing to maturity in post-war England who deals with issues of love, truth and mortality. In 1989 Barnes published A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, which was also a non-linear novel, which uses a variety of writing styles to call into question the perceived notions of human history and knowledge itself.
In 1991, he published Talking it Over, a contemporary love triangle, in which the three characters take turns to talk to the reader, reflecting over common events. This was followed ten years later by a sequel, Love, etc., which revisited the characters ten years on.
Barnes is a keen Francophile, and his 1996 book Cross Channel, is a collection of 10 stories charting Britain's relationship with France. He also returned to the topic of France in Something to Declare, a collection of essays on French subjects.
In 2003, Barnes appeared as the voice of Georges Simenon in a BBC Radio 4 series of adaptations of Inspector Maigret stories. Other works include England, England, a satire on Britishness and the culture of tourism; and Arthur & George, a detailed story based on the life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his involvement in the Great Wyrley Outrages. His 1992 book, The Porcupine, deals with the trial of a fictional former Communist dictator.
Barnes' eleventh novel, The Sense of an Ending, was published in 2011 and awarded the Man Booker Prize. The judges took 31 minutes to decide the winner, calling it a "beautifully written book," which "spoke to humankind in the 21st Century." Salman Rushdie tweeted Barnes his congratulations.
In 2013 Barnes published a "memoir" Levels of Life, about the death of his wife, which is "part history, part meditative essay and part fictionalized biography. The pieces combine to form a fascinating discourse on love and sorrow" (New York Times).
His wife, literary agent Pat Kavanagh, died of a brain tumour on 20 October 2008. He lives in London. His brother, Jonathan Barnes, is a philosopher specialised in Ancient Philosophy. He is the patron of human rights organisation Freedom from Torture. (Adapted from Wikipedia.)
The Sense of an Ending...is dense with philosophical ideas.... Still, it manages to create genuine suspense as a sort of psychological detective story. We not only want to find out how Mr. Barnes's narrator, Tony Webster, has rewritten his own history—and discover what actually happened some 40 years ago—but also understand why he has needed to do so.... Mr. Barnes does an agile job...of unpeeling the onion layers of his hero's life while showing how Tony has sliced and diced his past in order to create a self he can live with. In doing so Mr. Barnes underscores the ways people try to erase or edit their youthful follies and disappointments, converting actual events into anecdotes, and those anecdotes into a narrative.
Michiko Kakutani - New York Times
In Barnes's (Flaubert's Parrot) latest, winner of the 2011 Man-Booker Prize, protagonist Tony Webster has lived an average life with an unremarkable career, a quiet divorce, and a calm middle age. Now in his mid-60s, his retirement is thrown into confusion when he's bequeathed a journal that belonged to his brilliant school-friend, Adrian, who committed suicide 40 years earlier at age 22. Though he thought he understood the events of his youth, he's forced to radically revise what he thought he knew about Adrian, his bitter parting with his mysterious first lover Veronica, and reflect on how he let life pass him by safely and predictably. Barnes's spare and luminous prose splendidly evokes the sense of a life whose meaning (or meaninglessness) is inevitably defined by "the sense of an ending" which only death provides. Despite its focus on the blindness of youth and the passage of time, Barnes's book is entirely unpretentious. From the haunting images of its first pages to the surprising and wrenching finale, the novel carries readers with sensitivity and wisdom through the agony of lost time.
Life has been good to Tony Webster, who's both contentedly retired and contentedly divorced. Then friends reappear from a childhood long left behind and presumably shelved, and as the past suddenly looms large, Tony must rethink everything that has been his life. In the hands of multi-award winner Barnes, this should be masterly—and, with the book under 200 pages, there's a gorgeous simplicity at work.
A man's closest-held beliefs about a friend, former lover and himself are undone in a subtly devastating novella from Barnes.... [S]peaks to Barnes' skill at balancing emotional tensions and philosophical quandaries. A knockout. What at first seems like a polite meditation on childhood and memory leaves the reader asking difficult questions about how often we strive to paint ourselves in the best possible light.
1. Would you describe Tony Webster as an "unreliable yet sincere narrator"?
2. To what extent do you think Julian Barnes uses “peripeteia,” the unexpected twist in plot, to encourage the reader to adjust their expectations?
3. Do you agree with Anita Brookner’s review, “his [Julian Barnes] reputation will surely be enhanced by this book.” The Telegraph, July 2011.
4. The Sense of an Ending is a novel about the imperfections of memory. What insight does it give the reader into ageing and memory?
5. Is the ending unforeseen, does it leave you with a sense of unease?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
Also see the Discussion Questions at Princeton Book Review. They're much more comprehensive.
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