Death has invaded Julian Barnes's imagination. The title of this book,
, conjures intimations of mortality; the dedication is to the author's wife, literary agent Pat Kavanagh, who died in 2008 from a malignant brain tumour; and the narrative of this provocative novella, precipitated by the arrival of a lawyer's letter announcing a bizarre bequest, is suffused with accounts of youthful suicide, divorce, truncated careers and lives of diminishing promise.
Barnes, the author of nearly a dozen novels, including Flaubert's Parrot and Arthur and George, and several works of non-fiction, including his 2008 essay on mortality, Nothing to be Frightened Of, is fascinated as much by the way history is written as by the way fiction is created. Ostensibly, the book is a domestic drama in which the narrator, Tony Webster (a man about the same age as Barnes himself), revisits his school days to make sense of his current circumstances – solitary, retired, "peaceable" – and to pass judgment on the quality and moral fibre of his own character. But it is also a meditation on memory and the way the past is reconstructed to suit the needs of the present.
History is allegedly objective and based on documented facts and events, while fiction is supposedly a subjective portrait of fictional characters put under pressure over narrative time. Is the distinction really that clear-cut? Is history made up from the lies of the victors, the self-delusions of the defeated or the "certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation"? Isn't that also the stuff of fiction created out of absorbed experience? These assertions, which are presented and debated in Barnes's narrative, resonate thematically long after the last page has been turned.
The novel, neatly divided into two halves – then and now – opens in the early sixties in England, before the Pill was widely available and a university education was still largely the prerogative of the poor but brilliant and the upper class. Three sexually ambitious and frustrated boys, including Webster, are in the final year of secondary school. A new boy arrives, although the reason is never explained. Adrian Finn is a gangly, shy youth from a broken home; unusually for the era, his mother had bolted, leaving her husband to raise their two children. Finn is serious, philosophical and so thoughtfully intelligent that one of the teachers says to him in front of the class: "I retire in five years. And I shall be happy to give you a reference if you care to take over."
After graduation, the boys scatter to separate universities – Webster to Bristol and Finn to Cambridge – although they keep sporadically in touch until Finn takes up with Webster's discarded girlfriend, Veronica, and then shockingly commits suicide. In trying to make sense of this brutal end, the three friends revisit the earlier suicide of another schoolmate, causing Webster to wax philosophical about the noble death and to remember Finn saying, "Camus said that suicide was the only true philosophical question."
Finn reiterated that sentiment in his own suicide note, arguing that nobody asks to be born, so the thinking person, after philosophically examining the nature and conditions of this unasked-for bounty, has a moral and human duty to act on his conclusions. Will it surprise you to learn that Finn asked the coroner to publish his treatise? Or, that as a reader, my cynical mind went from those lofty and so very young justifications to Finn's flippant dismissal of the schoolmate who had hanged himself in his parents' attic after impregnating his girlfriend: "Eros and Thanatos … Thanatos wins again."
Exquisitely concise, The Sense of an Ending, which is long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, offers a merciless portrait of late-20th-century males. "You just don't get it. … You never did and you never will," Webster's disgruntled former girlfriend hurls dismissively at him; "you're on your own now," his ex-wife admonishes when his haplessness finally drives her to exasperation 20 years after their amiable divorce. I must confess that I pencilled "you idiot" several times in the galleys as Webster (who, after all, is the narrator and thus presenting his own version of the past) documented particularly egregious examples of his obtuseness about women and life.
And yet, there is something compelling about this inoffensive doofus, the kind of man who is easy to have hanging around – as long as you don't expect him to challenge or excite you. Webster's staying power, if you will, comes into its own long after the precocious sexual and intellectual prowess of his fellows has been extinguished in flaming acts of cowardice. There is solace in that comfortable and very human conclusion, unless, of course, Webster is deluding us by rewriting his personal history to defuse the impact of the vicious deed he committed as a young man. Yet another reason this novel lingers.
Sandra Martin is a senior features writer for The Globe and Mail.