The Sense Of An Ending, the Man Booker-winning novel by Julian Barnes, begins like a listicle of what Tony Webster remembers. The opening is a feint, a smart literary tool, in fact, a memory trick. Because the book is actually about the foggy memory of Tony, a cautious, divorced man in his 60s who has settled for a ‘shiftless’ life, and is ‘complacent’, not ‘content’ being ‘average’. It’s about him remembering his college clique, its front-seat member and subject of undiminished fondness, confusion and envy, Adrian, and college girlfriend, Veronica.
Adrian is a ‘clear-minded’ genius, Veronica is a ‘clear-edged’ woman, and these two are the enigmas in Tony’s simple-minded life that is mostly hedonistic, not ambitious.
The book is thrown in gear when old Tony receives a legacy from his girlfriend’s mother, a woman he met only once, and he is compelled to walk on a passage to his past. Tony’s smattering of his life’s instances show that the book is, in fact, about making sense of his own ordinary life.
Despite the flakes of ordinariness, Barnes chooses Tony as the narrator and Adrian is made out to be ‘too clever’ for comprehension. Veronica’s ‘damage’ is hinted upon but not elaborated. Both these characters are somehow reduced to instigators to wake Tony from his dreamless sleep and move him from his ‘instinct for self-preservation’ to his ‘confessional mode’. The book, in the form of Tony, makes things too relatable. Like many authors, Barnes humanises genius. He bases his book on a character that makes you feel warm and fuzzy. The book is not a fight for perspectives as the reader is constantly shown the world through Tony’s half-baked assumptions. It compels you into falling in line with Tony’s worldview than seeing it through Adrian’s or Veronica’s. And ironically, Tony himself spends his life speculating the insides of Veronica’s and Adrian’s mind. Perhaps the only time Tony is his own is when he is with Annie (something the book doesn’t elaborate). While you assume that it may then be about Tony’s redemption and nudging him closer to introspection, The Sense Of An Ending offers a challenge.
Barnes’ infectious language, wit, and storytelling doesn’t push the book down to an old, run-of-the-mill, coming-of-age dramedy that encircles most romantics. Though Barnes’ chooses the relatable route, he does it with élan, and as close to real life as possible. He doesn’t fill Tony with brighter, crucial memories that would fade his glorious youth, he doesn’t let the impact of Adrian and Veronica fade from his mind. In fact, he gives Tony one little saving grace: his undeniable insights on time and life. Barnes consistently maintains that ‘expecting life to mellow towards the end’ is a folly. That ‘time grounds us and it is not for the ordinary to grasp its mysteries’. But as the story progresses, Barnes indulges in a ‘desire, if not desirability’, and throws Tony back into the ‘slew and slop’ of Veronica and Adrian’s enigma.
Eventually, it isn’t the ‘eternal hopefulness of Tony’s heart’ that immerses you in the book but the eternal thoughtfulness, suspicion, and battle of finding out who Veronica and Adrian truly are and understand their impact on the everyday life of Tony. It isn’t the peaceable Tony that makes you read the book, perhaps because each of us sees a Tony in us, but the possibility of embracing, the extraordinary, Adrian and Veronica as undefinable corners of your own mind.
Barnes discusses a ‘superiority of intervention over the passivity of letting life happen’ in the book, something that he has cleverly used in order to stop the book from merely happening. He crafted an end that has not only triggered mile-long discussions on the internet but also dared to overthrow each philosophy in the book as contradictory.
The best thing about the book is to draw from its own catchphrase, ‘everything is philosophically self-evident’, and say that in human life, nothing can be philosophically self-evident.