Several weeks ago, when Julian Barnes delivered his acceptance speech after getting his inevitable and almost uncontested Booker Prize for The Sense Of An Ending, one might have wondered: “Hey, wait a minute. How come it’s only his first Booker?” It really seemed quite incredible. After all, Barnes has been around and consistently brilliant for more than three decades now, and neither his style nor his career has engendered as much controversy as, say, Martin Amis’s (who’s certainly not getting any decent literary prize any time this century). Thus, as deserved as the whole thing was, it was easy to take that belated celebration for granted.
The Sense Of An Ending isn’t even Barnes’ best novel; though in a way, it’s as perfect as a novel can get. Throughout its brisk, but emotionally overpowering 150 pages, Julian Barnes tells you all there is to tell about disillusioned idealism, complacency and littleness.
The book tells a story of a man called Anthony Webster, who contemplates his own life – a rather successful life that made him a respectable old man with a nice, unimposing ex-wife (‘advantage of being an ex-husband is that you don’t have to justify your behaviour any more’) and a good healthy daughter. An average life, so much like yours or mine, and yet such a contrast to the caustic, audacious remarks of Anthony’s teenage days. It’s telling that the actual life takes only so many pages, and what we are left with is a long and bitter reflection on several episodes centred around his friend, Adrian Finn, and his former girlfriend, Veronica. It’s perhaps even more telling that these reflections only start cutting through Anthony’s bland and invisible retirement after a lawyer’s short letter telling him he now inherits Adrian’s diary. And it starts spinning from there, that picture in Trafalgar square, that visit to Veronica’s house, Adrian’s suicide. It’s unnerving and heartbreaking to read about this quiet and sleeping and insignificant past catching up on Anthony, going horribly, catastrophically wrong.
When it starts getting really ugly, and at some point it does, Anthony suddenly begins to feel his slight but wormy, cancerous presence in the lives of other people. This presence is akin to that of a polite and inconspicuous boy telling his thuggish friend that there’s this one bolt in Mr. Henderson’s chair that, if loosened, will make the old professor crash down on the floor. The boy will passively witness the outcome, and then passively and perhaps rather willfully and happily forget the whole thing.
But the past comes back at Anthony, and with vengeance. Remorse kicks in, and the only job worth doing becomes remembering the life that he’d lived, been somewhat successful in, but never quite mastered. So that he is reduced to that anguished, existential “Was I sleeping, while the others suffered?” monologue of Beckett’s Vladimir from Waiting For Godot.
But there’s another literary character to Anthony. In his strained latter-day conversations with Veronica Anthony is a desperate figure. Striving to get how and where it had all gone wrong, striving to string it all together, he reminds you of Dostoevsky’s teenager. Entangled by the whispers and understatements of the outside world suddenly gone real, he fails – again and again. Like Dostoevsky’s teenager, he has a love-hate relationship with the world, he is idealistic and impulsive in his judgements. Note how he treats Adrian’s suicide at different stages of his life.
He gets it in the end, of course, he strings it all together, but only when it’s too late and the sense of an ending is way too obvious and overwhelming. Having failed to register it before, he now has to face its ominous, unforgiving presence in a state of misery and defenselessness. And yet since he does get it in the end, Anthony Webster is not a complete failure. Many of us get away without ever shedding that soft, thick, comfort-soaked skin; without never really minding being ‘bigger than nothing, not as big as something’. Anthony minds, and comes to realise that a man ends up grey and crumpled because he could never see the significance of his own actions and words.
Full of palpable, real-life drama and smart observations, The Sense Of An Ending is the kind of mature novel any writer of Barnes’ age would like to write. There’s not a word wasted here, and the heavy, suffocated feeling you end up with might be the moral choice you won’t squander.