The Sense of an Ending

When Julian Barnes’s latest novel won the perennially controversial Man Booker Prize earlier this month, special attention was paid to its length. The Sense of an Ending is a slight work in material terms; at just over 150 pages (the page count is 163 in the American edition), it wrestles in the novella class. The Booker is an award for novels. The awards controversy is always a dreary affair, but this installment prompts a question with a small measure of real literary interest: just how long does a novel have to be?

The Sense of an Ending is the first-person tale of an unreliable narrator, Tony Webster — or Anthony, the formal version his friends and lovers prefer to use when upbraiding him for his lack of understanding, which happens all the time (as a narrator, Tony is an interesting case insofar as he acknowledges that his unreliability is not only our problem but his). He tells of Adrian Finn, the most intellectually precocious member of Tony’s secondary-school circle of friends. Adrian was especially prodigious on questions of time and memory. “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation,” he declares once in class, quoting a French writer he calls Patrick Lagrange (a made-up author; Tony is not the only unreliable narrator here). The teacher disagrees. “Historians need to treat a participant’s own explanation of events with a certain scepticism,” he reminds Adrian. “It is often the statement made with an eye to the future that is the most suspect.” It is the task of the rest of The Sense of an Ending to consider the experimental possibilities of Adrian’s argument and his teacher’s reply.

The boys are soon off to university — Adrian to Cambridge, others to provincial colleges — and their friendship begins to wane. Tony falls in with a girl named Veronica Ford (her name evocative of the author of The Good Soldier, whose unreliable narrator is Tony’s clearest literary ancestor). Her haughty intelligence seduces him even as her frigid inscrutability drives him to dismay. Not long after their tortuous and inevitable breakup, Tony learns that Veronica has taken up with Adrian. He distracts himself with a pleasant backpacking sojourn in the States; upon his return, he learns that Adrian has committed suicide, leaving a note in which he argues with brio and politesse that the examined life may not be worth living either. Grudgingly admiring the courage of Adrian’s act, Tony goes on to live his own mundane instantiation of Adrian’s argument: takes up a blurry career in arts administration, marries, fathers a distant daughter, is amicably divorced. As the first section of this short book concludes, we find Tony agreeably at peace with his quiet desperation.

And then a letter arrives to disarrange Tony’s bachelor retirement. Veronica’s now-elderly mother has died, leaving Tony 500 pounds and Adrian’s diary, saved from all those years ago and now in Veronica’s possession. Initially perplexed, Tony begins a dogged pursuit of the diary. As he and Veronica maneuver over the document, events and epiphanies throw the unreliability of Tony’s storytelling into stark relief.

When Tony and Veronica at last meet again face to face, it’s on the “Wobbly Bridge” — the recently built span between St. Paul’s and the Tate Modern that famously fluttered in the wind when first flung across the Thames. “The British commentariat duly mocked the architects and engineers for not knowing what they were doing,” Tony remarks. “I thought it beautiful. I also liked the way it wobbled. It seemed to me that we ought occasionally to be reminded of instability beneath our feet.” It’s a useful figure for the tenuous connections that complicate this tale and, ultimately, make a novel of it.

Of course the novel is a mongrel genre, encompassing works of wildly varying length, structure, and literary complexity. One of the most compelling definitions of the novel was offered by the Russian thinker Mikhail Bakhtin, who emphasized its capacity for capturing characters as individual personalities engaged in the business of time — people whose now is doing active battle with the past. Such is precisely the method of The Sense of an Ending. Tony’s story becomes a skein of complexity worked in strands of time, reflection, and self-doubt. Barnes achieves this effect through a kind of refrain of rupture, mostly through little envoi of unreliability that end contiguous strands of narrative, quick doublings-back in which Tony reflects upon the truth-value of his narrative propositions. “Was this their exact exchange?” he asks himself after recounting an early colloquy between Adrian and a teacher. It is a question he repeats with growing compulsion throughout his account. And the answer too rarely varies from this model: “Almost certainly not. Still, it is my best memory of their exchange.” The torn gossamer structure that results from these repeated divagations captures and holds the story’s occasions lightly. It is across the chasm between narrative and event — a temporal alienation at least analogous to the swerving space between memory and document, which Adrian calls the source of history — that The Sense of an Ending stakes its novelistic claim.

If this finely built edifice of instabilities does function as a novel, we return to the obligatory controversy of the Man Booker: is it a good novel, worthy of a celebrated award? Here I want to make the case that this is a fine work of fiction and an irresponsible one. The book doesn’t fail for lack of artfulness or length but rather for its attenuated moral vision, a lack not solely attributable to its reliably unreliable narrator. The story’s chief objective correlative for moral cowardice, suicide, is here deployed as a shorthand symbol from a simplistic moral syllabary. When Tony discovers that Adrian’s suicide was not a grand philosophical project, he concludes that it was lazy instead — that he had “taken the easy way out” of an uncomfortable situation — betraying a theory of suicide that is not so much thrillingly fatalistic as unexamined.

In purely literary terms, this work is incontrovertibly a novel, and a well-wrought one. But its radically lonely characters, adrift amidst the flotsam of the choices modernity dooms them to make — not the particular choices, mind, but the burden of choosing itself — seem the symptoms of a decadent genre. With the novel, that congeries of past time and present person, here’s where we’ve ended up: if Sisyphus isn’t happy, then it’s his own damn fault. This is the ideology of a society in which winning is everything, even if very few — let’s put the figure at one percent — will ever win in the proffered terms. It’s the kind of society that produces high-stakes prizes and literary controversy. So, does The Sense of an Ending deserve the Man Booker? Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that novel and prize deserve one another.