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The Sense of an Ending

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Overview

Winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize

One of The Atlantic's Best Books I Read This Year

A novel so compelling that it begs to be read in a single setting, The Sense of an Ending has the psychological and emotional depth and sophistication of Henry James at his best, and is a stunning new chapter in Julian Barnes's oeuvre.
 
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Overview

Winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize

One of The Atlantic's Best Books I Read This Year

A novel so compelling that it begs to be read in a single setting, The Sense of an Ending has the psychological and emotional depth and sophistication of Henry James at his best, and is a stunning new chapter in Julian Barnes's oeuvre.
 
This intense novel follows Tony Webster, a middle-aged man, as he contends with a past he never thought much about—until his closest childhood friends return with a vengeance: one of them from the grave, another maddeningly present. Tony thought he left this all behind as he built a life for himself, and his career has provided him with a secure retirement and an amicable relationship with his ex-wife and daughter, who now has a family of her own. But when he is presented with a mysterious legacy, he is forced to revise his estimation of his own nature and place in the world.

Winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize
Shortlisted for the 2011 Costa Novel Award

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review.

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.
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Library Journal
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. Essential; with a reading group guide.
Kirkus Reviews
A man's closest-held beliefs about a friend, former lover and himself are undone in a subtly devastating novella from Barnes. The author's slim 11th novel (and fourth to be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize) shouldn't be mistaken for a frivolous one: It's an intense exploration of how we write our own histories and how our actions in moments of anger can have consequences that stretch across decades. The novel's narrator, Anthony, is in late middle age, and recalling friendships from adolescence and early adulthood. He's focused on two people in particular: Adrian, a brilliant but gloomy schoolmate who routinely questioned the certainties of his history teachers, and Veronica, a harridan with whom he has a brief and tempestuous affair. After the breakup, Adrian and Veronica begin their own relationship. Anthony dashes off a bitter letter to Adrian, and when Adrian kills himself soon after, Anthony is willing to credit it to depression. But a letter he receives years later complicates the story. The novel has a love-triangle structure--one of its mysteries has to do with where Veronica's affections resided. But its focus is more intellectual, as Anthony considers how much of his past history he's failed to face up to, how willing he is to confront his mistakes and to what degree his own moral failings affected others. Decades after their breakup, Anthony and Veronica are forced to reconnect due to some legal tussling over Adrian's diary, and their parrying at times becomes painfully intense. The brutality of those exchanges, coolly presented, speaks 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.
Michiko Kakutani
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.
—The New York Times
Liesl Schillinger
…[Barnes] engages with the untidy collisions of the human struggle more directly than ever, even as he remains characteristically light on his feet…The Sense of an Ending is a short book, but not a slight one. In it Julian Barnes reveals crystalline truths that have taken a lifetime to harden. He has honed their edges, and polished them to a high gleam.
—The New York Times Book Review
From the Publisher

“Elegant, playful, and remarkable.” —The New Yorker
 
“A page-turner, and when you finish you will return immediately to the beginning.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“Beautiful. . . . An elegantly composed, quietly devastating tale.” —Heller McAlpin, NPR
 
“Dense with philosophical ideas. . . . It manages to create genuine suspense as a sort of psychological detective story.” —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“Evelyn Waugh did it in Brideshead Revisited, as did Philip Larkin in Jill [and] Kazuo Ishiguro in The Remains of the Day. Now, with his powerfully compact new novel, Julian Barnes takes his place among the subtly assertive practitioners of this quiet art.” —The New York Times Book Review
 
“[A] jewel of conciseness and precision…. The Sense of an Ending packs into so few pages so much that the reader finishes it with a sense of satisfaction more often derived from novels several times its length.” —The Los Angeles Times
 
“Exquisitely crafted, sophisticated, suspenseful, and achingly painful, The Sense of an Ending is a meditation on history, memory, and individual responsibility.” —The Philadelphia Inquirer
 
“Clever, provocative. . . . A brilliant, understated examination of memory and how it works, how it compartmentalizes and fixes impressions to tidily store away.” —The Minneapolis Star-Tribune
 
“Concisely written and yet rich and full of emotional depth. . . . It’s highly original as well. And complicated, just like life.” —New York Journal of Books

“Elegiac yet potent, The Sense of an Ending probes the mysteries of how we remember and our impulse to redact, correct—and sometimes entirely erase—our pasts.” —Vogue
 
“Ominous and disturbing….  This outwardly tidy and conventional story is one of Barnes’s most indelible [and] looms oppressively in our minds.” —The Wall Street Journal
 
“At 163 pages, The Sense of an Ending is the longest book I have ever read, so prepare yourself for rereading. You won’t regret it.” —Jane Juska, The San Francisco Chronicle
 
“With his characteristic grace and skill, Barnes manages to turn this cat-and-mouse game into something genuinely suspenseful.” —The Washington Post
 
“Ferocious. . . . A book for the ages.” —Cleveland Plain Dealer
 
“Concisely written and yet rich and full of emotional depth. . . . At times, side-splittingly funny, at others, brutally honest, but always delightfully well observed. . . . Ironically, despite focusing on endings, and on suicide, this is a tremendously life-affirming work. It’s highly original as well. And complicated, just like life.” —New York Journal of Books
 
“Elegiac yet potent, The Sense of an Ending probes the mysteries of how we remember and our impulse to redact, correct – and sometimes entirely erase – our pasts. . . . Barnes’s highly wrought meditation on aging gives just as much resonance to what is unknown and unspoken as it does to the momentum of its own plot.” —Vogue
 
“Novel, fertile and memorable . . . . A highly wrought meditation on aging, memory and regret.” —The Guardian (London)
 
“A brilliant, understated examination of memory and how it works, how it compartmentalizes and fixes impressions to tidily store away. . . . Clever, provocative. . . . Barnes reminds his readers how fragile is the tissue of impressions we conveniently rely upon as bedrock.” —Minneapolis Star-Tribune
 
"Brief, beautiful. . . . That fundamentally chilling question—Am I the person I think I am?—turns out to be a surprisingly suspenseful one. . . . As Barnes so elegantly and poignantly reveals, we are all unreliable narrators, redeemed not by the accuracy of our memories but by our willingness to question them." —The Boston Globe.
 
“Quietly mesmerizing. . . . A slow burn, measured but suspenseful, this compact novel makes every slyly crafted sentence count.” —The Independent (London)
 
"Deliciously intriguing...with complex and subtle undertones [and] laced with Barnes' trademark wit and graceful writing." —The Washington Times

The Barnes & Noble Review

When Julian Barnes's novel won the perennially controversial Man Booker Prize in October 2011, 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.

Matthew Battles is the author of Library: An Unquiet History. He has written about language, technology, and history for such publications as The American Scholar, The Boston Sunday Globe, and Harper's.

Reviewer: Matthew Battles

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307957122
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/5/2011
  • Pages: 176
  • Sales rank: 450,944
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.60 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Julian Barnes is the author of ten previous novels, three books of short stories, and three collections of journalism. In addition to the Booker Prize, his other honors include the Somerset Maugham Award, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, and the E.M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in London.

www.julianbarnes.com

Biography

Julian Barnes once told London's Observer that he writes fiction "to tell beautiful, exact, and well-constructed lies which enclose hard and shimmering truths." Indeed, this is what Barnes does, sometimes spiking his lies with fact -- most notably in Flaubert's Parrot, the novel that became his breakthrough book. The story of a retired doctor obsessed with the French author, it combines a literary detective story with a character study of its detective, including facts about Flaubert along the way.

Before Flaubert's Parrot propelled him into the company of Ian McEwan and Martin Amis in British authordom, Barnes had been moderately successful with the novels Metroland (which later became the 1997 movie starring Emily Watson and Christian Bale) and Before She Met Me. He was also known to Brits as a newspaper TV critic. Parrot and Barnes's subsequent "Letters from London" in The New Yorker helped expand the author's Stateside following.

"A lot of novelists set up a kind of franchise, and turn out a familiar product," friend and fellow author Jay McInerney told the Guardian in 2000. "But what I like about Jules's work is that he's like an entrepreneur who starts up a new company every time out." Among other ambitious themes, Barnes has explored the collapse of communism (The Porcupine) the Disneyfication of culture (England, England), the simple dynamics of relationships (Talking It Over and its sequel, Love, Etc.), and the connections between art, religion, and death (The History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters).

Barnes has also produced collections of essays, a translation of Alphonse Daudet's In the Land of Pain, and a family memoir (Nothing to Be Frightened Of) that also serves as a meditation on mortality.

Good To Know

In 2000, a cybersquatting professor acquired the Internet rights to julianbarnes.com and several other authors' domain names; Barnes later won his name back, and the domain is now an informational site run by a fan with Barnes's permission. Barnes had protested the professor's actions, accusing him of usurpation; but his opponent might have responded by quoting from Barnes's own (albeit satirical) England, England: "Indeed, wasn't there something old-fashioned about the whole concept of ownership, or rather its acquisition by formal contract, in which title is received in exchange for consideration given?.... It would have been unfair to call Sir Jack Pitman a barbarian, though some did; but there stirred within him a longing to revisit pre-classical, pre-bureaucratic methods of acquiring ownership. Methods such as theft, conquest and pillage, for example."

Barnes wrote four mystery novels under the pseudonym Dan Kavanagh, all of which are now out of print; the novels starred Duffy, a bisexual ex–police officer. Kavanagh's bio read in part: "Having devoted his adolescence to truancy, venery and petty theft, he left home at seventeen and signed on as a deckhand on a Liberian tanker." Kavanagh also happens to be the last name of Barnes's agent and wife, Pat.

Barnes was a deputy literary editor under Martin Amis at the New Statesman from 1980–82 and was also a lexicographer for the Oxford English Dictionary. Amis and Barnes later had a falling-out that became fodder for the press when Amis wrote about it in his memoir, Experience; Barnes is mum on the subject, but the disagreement arose when Amis defected from Barnes's wife to another agent.

Barnes has a cameo in the film Bridget Jones's Diary as himself, but in a lesser role than he has in Helen Fielding's book. In the book, Bridget is flummoxed upon encountering Barnes and embarrasses herself; but the more recognizable Salman Rushdie was substituted for Barnes in the film version.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Dan Kavanagh
    2. Hometown:
      London, England
    1. Date of Birth:
      January 19, 1946
    2. Place of Birth:
      Leicester, England
    1. Education:
      Degree in modern languages from Magdalen College, Oxford, 1968

Read an Excerpt

I remember, in no particular order:

– a shiny inner wrist;

– steam rising from a wet sink as a hot frying pan is laughingly tossed into it;

– gouts of sperm circling a plughole, before being sluiced down the full length of a tall house;

– a river rushing nonsensically upstream, its wave and wash lit by half a dozen chasing torchbeams;

– another river, broad and grey, the direction of its flow disguised by a stiff wind exciting the surface;

– bathwater long gone cold behind a locked door. This last isn’t something I actually saw, but what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.
 
We live in time – it holds us and moulds us – but I’ve never felt I understood it very well. And I’m not referring to theories about how it bends and doubles back, or may exist elsewhere in parallel versions. No, I mean ordinary, everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly: tick-tock, click-clock. Is there anything more plausible than a second hand? And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time’s malleability. Some emotions speed it up, others slow it down; occasionally, it seems to go missing – until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return.

• *

I’m not very interested in my schooldays, and don’t feel any nostalgia for them. But school is where it all began, so I need to return briefly to a few incidents that have grown into anecdotes, to some approximate memories which time has deformed into certainty. If I can’t be sure of the actual events any more, I can at least be true to the impressions those facts left. That’s the best I can manage.

There were three of us, and he now made the fourth. We hadn’t expected to add to our tight number: cliques and pairings had happened long before, and we were already beginning to imagine our escape from school into life. His name was Adrian Finn, a tall, shy boy who initially kept his eyes down and his mind to himself. For the first day or two, we took little notice of him: at our school there was no welcoming ceremony, let alone its opposite, the punitive induction. We just registered his presence and waited.

The masters were more interested in him than we were. They had to work out his intelligence and sense of discipline, calculate how well he’d previously been taught, and if he might prove ‘scholarship material’. On the third morning of that autumn term, we had a history class with Old Joe Hunt, wryly affable in his three-piece suit, a teacher whose system of control depended on maintaining sufficient but not excessive boredom.

‘Now, you’ll remember that I asked you to do some preliminary reading about the reign of Henry VIII.’ Colin, Alex and I squinted at one another, hoping that the ques­tion wouldn’t be flicked, like an angler’s fly, to land on one of our heads. ‘Who might like to offer a characterisation of the age?’ He drew his own conclusion from our averted eyes. ‘Well, Marshall, perhaps. How would you describe Henry VIII’s reign?”

Our relief was greater than our curiosity, because Marshall was a cautious know-nothing who lacked the inventiveness of true ignorance. He searched for possible hidden complexities in the question before eventually locating a response.

‘There was unrest, sir.’

An outbreak of barely controlled smirking; Hunt himself almost smiled.

‘Would you, perhaps, care to elaborate?’

Marshall nodded slow assent, thought a little longer, and decided it was no time for caution. ‘I’d say there was great unrest, sir.’

‘Finn, then. Are you up in this period?’

The new boy was sitting a row ahead and to my left. He had shown no evident reaction to Marshall’s idiocies.

‘Not really, sir, I’m afraid. But there is one line of thought according to which all you can truly say of any historical event – even the outbreak of the First World War, for example – is that “something happened”.’

‘Is there, indeed? Well, that would put me out of a job, wouldn’t it?’ After some sycophantic laughter, Old Joe Hunt pardoned our holiday idleness and filled us in on the polygamous royal butcher.

At the next break, I sought out Finn.‘I’m Tony Webster.’ He looked at me warily. ‘Great line to Hunt.’ He seemed not to know what I was referring to. ‘About something happening.’

‘Oh. Yes. I was rather disappointed he didn’t take it up.’

That wasn’t what he was supposed to say.

Another detail I remember: the three of us, as a symbol of our bond, used to wear our watches with the face on the inside of the wrist. It was an affectation, of course, but perhaps something more. It made time feel like a personal, even a secret, thing.We expected Adrian to note the gesture, and follow suit; but he didn’t.
 
Later that day – or perhaps another day – we had a double English period with Phil Dixon, a young master just down from Cambridge. He liked to use contemporary texts, and would throw out sudden challenges.‘“Birth, and Copulation, and Death” – that’s what T. S. Eliot says it’s all about. Any comments?’ He once compared a Shakespearean hero to Kirk Douglas in Spartacus. And I remember how, when we were discussing Ted Hughes’s poetry, he put his head at a donnish slant and murmured,‘Of course, we’re all wondering what will happen when he runs out of animals.’ Sometimes, he addressed us as ‘Gentlemen’. Naturally, we adored him.

That afternoon, he handed out a poem with no title, date or author’s name, gave us ten minutes to study it, then asked for our responses.

‘Shall we start with you, Finn? Put simply, what would you say this poem is about?’

Adrian looked up from his desk. ‘Eros and Thanatos, sir.’

‘Hmm. Go on.’

‘Sex and death,’ Finn continued, as if it might not just be the thickies in the back row who didn’t understand Greek. ‘Or love and death, if you prefer.The erotic principle, in any case, coming into conflict with the death principle. And what ensues from that conflict. Sir.’

I was probably looking more impressed than Dixon thought healthy.

‘Webster, enlighten us further.’

‘I just thought it was a poem about a barn owl, sir.’

This was one of the differences between the three of us and our new friend. We were essentially taking the piss, except when we were serious. He was essentially serious, except when he was taking the piss. It took us a while to work this out.
 
Adrian allowed himself to be absorbed into our group, without acknowledging that it was something he sought. Perhaps he didn’t. Nor did he alter his views to accord with ours. At morning prayers he could be heard joining in the responses while Alex and I merely mimed the words, and Colin preferred the satirical ploy of the pseudo-zealot’s enthusiastic bellow.The three of us considered school sports a crypto-fascist plan for repressing our sex-drive; Adrian joined the fencing club and did the high jump. We were belligerently tone-deaf; he came to school with his clarinet. When Colin denounced the family, I mocked the political system, and Alex made philosophical objections to the perceived nature of reality, Adrian kept his counsel – at first, anyway. He gave the impression that he believed in things. We did too – it was just that we wanted to believe in our own things, rather than what had been decided for us. Hence what we thought of as our cleansing scepticism.

The school was in central London, and each day we travelled up to it from our separate boroughs, passing from one system of control to another. Back then, things were plainer: less money, no electronic devices, little fashion tyranny, no girlfriends. There was nothing to distract us from our human and filial duty which was to study, pass exams, use those qualifications to find a job, and then put together a way of life unthreateningly fuller than that of our parents, who would approve, while privately comparing it to their own earlier lives, which had been simpler, and therefore superior. None of this, of course, was ever stated: the genteel social Darwinism of the English middle classes always remained implicit.

‘Fucking bastards, parents,’ Colin complained one Monday lunchtime. ‘You think they’re OK when you’re little, then you realise they’re just like . . .’

‘Henry VIII, Col?’ Adrian suggested.We were beginning to get used to his sense of irony; also to the fact that it might be turned against us as well.When teasing, or calling us to seriousness, he would address me as Anthony; Alex would become Alexander, and the unlengthenable Colin shortened to Col.

‘Wouldn’t mind if my dad had half a dozen wives.’

‘And was incredibly rich.’

‘And painted by Holbein.’

‘And told the Pope to sod off.’

‘Any particular reason why they’re FBs?’ Alex asked Colin.

‘I wanted us to go to the funfair. They said they had to spend the weekedn gardening.’

Right: fucking bastards. Except to Adrian, who listened to our denunciations, but rarely joined in. And yet, it seemed to us, he had more cause than most. His mother had walked out years before, leaving his dad to cope with Adrian and his sister. This was long before the term ‘single­parent family’ came into use; back then it was ‘a broken home’, and Adrian was the only person we knew who came from one. This ought to have given him a whole storetank of existential rage, but somehow it didn’t; he said he loved his mother and respected his father. Privately, the three of us examined his case and came up with a theory: that the key to a happy family life was for there not to be a family – or at least, not one living together. Having made this analysis, we envied Adrian the more.
 

In those days, we imagined ourselves as being kept in some kind of holding pen, waiting to he released into our lives. And when that moment came, our lives – and time itself – would speed up. How were we to know that our lives had in any case begun, that some advantage had already been gained, some damage already inflicted? Also, that our release would only be into a larger holding pen, whose boundaries would be at first undiscernible.

In the meantime, we were book-hungry, sex-hungry, meritocratic, anarchistic. All political and social systems appeared to us corrupt, yet we declined to consider an alternative other than hedonistic chaos. Adrian, however, pushed us to believe in the application of thought to life, in the notion that principles should guide actions. Previously, Alex had been regarded as the philosopher among us. He had read stuff the other two hadn’t, and might, for instance, suddenly declare, ‘Whereof we cannot speak, thereof must we remain silent.’ Colin and I would consider this idea in silence for a while, then grin and carry on talking. But now Adrian’s arrival dislodged Alex from his position – or rather, gave us another choice of philosopher. If Alex had read Russell and Wittgenstein, Adrian had read Camus and Nietzsche. I had read George Orwell and Aldous Huxley; Colin had read Baudelaire and Dostoevsky. This is only a slight caricature.

Yes, of course we were pretentious – what else is youth for? We used terms like ‘Weltanschauung’ and ‘Sturm und Drang’, enjoyed saying ‘That’s philosophically self-evident’, and assured one another that the imagination’s first duty was to be transgressive. Our parents saw things differently, picturing their children as innocents suddenly exposed to noxious influence. So Colin’s mother referred to me as his ‘dark angel’; my father blamed Alex when he found me reading The Communist Manifesto; Colin was fingered by Alex’s parents when they caught him with a hard-boiled American crime novel. And so on. It was the same with sex. Our parents thought we might be corrupted by one another into becoming whatever it was they most feared: an incorrigible masturbator, a winsome homosexual, a recklessly impregnatory libertine. On our behalf they dreaded the closeness of adolescent friendship, the predatory behaviour of strangers on trains, the lure of the wrong kind of girl. How far their anxieties outran our experience.
 

One afternoon Old Joe Hunt, as if picking up Adrian’s earlier challenge, asked us to debate the origins of the First World War: specifically, the responsibility of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassin for starting the whole thing off. Back then, we were most of us absolutists. We liked Yes v No, Praise v Blame, Guilt v Innocence – or, in Marshall’s case, Unrest v Great Unrest. We liked a game that ended in a win and loss, not a draw. And so for some, the Serbian gunman, whose name is long gone from my memory, had one hundred per cent individual responsibility: take him out of the equation, and the war would never have happened. Others preferred the one hundred per cent responsibility of historical forces, which had placed the antagonistic nations on an inevitable collision course: ‘Europe was a powder keg waiting to blow’, and so on. The more anarchic, like Colin, argued that everything was down to chance, that the world existed in a state of perpetual chaos, and only some primitive storytelling instinct, itself doubtless a hangover from religion, retrospectively imposed meaning on what might or might not have happened.

Hunt gave a brief nod to Colin’s attempt to undermine everything, as if morbid disbelief was a natural by-product of adolescence, something to be grown out of. Masters and parents used to remind us irritatingly that they too had once been young, and so could speak with authority. It’s just a phase, they would insist. You’ll grow out of it; life will teach you reality and realism. But back then we declined to acknowledge that they had ever been anything like us, and we knew that we grasped life – and truth, and morality, and art – far more clearly than our compromised elders.

‘Finn, you’ve been quiet. You started this ball rolling. You are, as it were our Serbian gunman.’ Hunt paused to let the allusion take effect. ‘Would you care to give us the benefit of your thoughts?’

‘I don’t know, sir.’

‘What don’t you know?’

‘Well, in one sense. I can’t know what it is that I don’t know. That’s philosophically self-evident.’ He left one of those slight pauses in which we again wondered if he was engaged in subtle mockery or a high seriousness beyond the rest of us.‘Indeed, isn’t the whole business of ascribing responsibility a kind of cop-out? We want to blame an individual so that everyone else is exculpated. Or we blame a historical process as a way of exonerating individuals. Or it’s all anarchic chaos, with the same consequence. It seems to me that there is – was – a chain of individual respon­sibilities, all of which were necessary, but not so long a chain that everybody can simply blame everyone else. But of course, my desire to ascribe responsibility might be more a reflection of my own cast of mind than a fair analysis of what happened.That’s one of the central problems of history, isn’t it, sir? The question of subjective versus objective interpretation, the fact that we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us.’

There was a silence. And no, he wasn’t taking the piss, not in the slightest.

Old Joe Hunt looked at his watch and smiled. ‘Finn, I retire in five years. And I shall be happy to give you a reference if you care to take over.’ And he wasn’t taking the piss either.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Reading Group Guide

The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes’s provocative new novel, winner of the 2011 Man-Booker Prize.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 183 )
Rating Distribution

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4 Star

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(34)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 183 Customer Reviews
  • Posted October 20, 2011

    Worthy of any awards it receives

    This is a short book. I consider myself a fast reader, but not speed reader, and I was able to digest it in about 4-5 hours on my Nook. This is not a throwaway airport novel, this is a "thick" book. Many times I found myself re-reading passages that contained philosophical dialogue between the characters to make sure I was understanding it correctly. "The Sense of an Ending" will be discussed in English Lit 101 classes for years to come. After reading this, I feel like I have a better understanding of aging, remembrance, and how we perceive life and reality. For that, I believe that this book is worthy of any awards it receives.

    53 out of 54 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 9, 2011

    I Also Recommend:

    I found this little book an interesting read.

    The Sense of an Ending is a bit of a challenging and devastating tale of philosophical ideas about memory, aging, time and remorse. The imperfections of memory present a thought-provoking subject matter and delves into mistakes, disappointments and life¿s losses and mysteriously offers insight into the human condition. I found this little book an interesting read.

    29 out of 36 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 11, 2011

    What a perfect book

    Wonderfully complex.
    I finished it, reflected on it for about 20 seconds and then restarted it.
    I'm not sure which read was better...
    If I was a college lit teacher, this would be at the top of my required reading list.

    20 out of 22 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 28, 2011

    Stunning....

    The author's mastery of the craft of writing is on full display here. His insights into the vagaries of memory and the ways people build their "selves" from their memory is powerful and revelatory. In a few short pages, the reader's perception of self may well be changed forever.

    An amazing work.

    16 out of 17 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 3, 2012

    Excellent and very British

    Living in the USA (a Brit in the New World) I loved the Britishness of this. Loved the leading character, his age and the way the book deals with aging. It is an excellent read; very well written; a joy to read - I think.

    Be prepared for words that are not used in The States - I did not want to put it down, did not want to finish it and was longing to know what happened at the end....and I felt satisfied when I got there, Complete.

    11 out of 12 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 19, 2011

    Provocative

    As I saw from reading other reviews, I am not the only one who read the book and then immediately re-read it to look for indications along the way that supported the surprising conclusion. Not that the book was confusing - it was concisely written and very engaging - but the idea that we were relying on Tony's imperfect memories to solve the mystery of why he was named in the will of a girlfriend's mother, whom he had met only once, made me want to re-examine those memories once I knew the end result. That said, I think I would have preferred the first surprise revelation to be the correct conclusion, rather than the stunning I- Didn't-See-That-Coming ending. The book was short - hardly more than a short story, really - but had great depth that would lead a reader to examine his own perceptions of life.

    10 out of 11 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 21, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Thought-Provoking Exploration of A Life

    Tony Webster is an average man. We read of his life growing up, and his circle of friends. His most striking friend was Adrian, a brilliant student who the other boys never quite felt they knew. We read of his first love, Veronica, and how that worked out. We read how Tony felt when he and Veronica broke up and he later finds out that she and Adrian are now a couple.

    The book then skips ahead forty years. Tony is now retired, having put in his years at an average job. He is divorced and still sees his ex-wife for lunches, no great hate or love there. He has one child he sees occasionally, and grandchildren he is more or less a stranger to. Average, average, average, Tony's whole life has been about getting by without making waves.

    Then a surprise bequest causes Tony to reevaluate his entire life. He looks back at his schoolboy days, his college years and his marriage. One piece of information after another opens the floodgates of memory, and he remembers conversations and actions that he has long forgotten, but that now reframe his life in a different light. He tracks down old acquaintances and friends, until he uncovers a startling secret--one that makes him wonder what his life has been about and how his life has affected that of others.

    The Sense Of An Ending won the 2011 Man Booker prize for literature. It is a gem of a book, short but thought-provoking. This is Julian Barnes at the top of his form, effortlessly shaking the snow-globe of memories to rearrange the outcome of events in myriad ways. He forces the reader to examine what place memories play in our lives, and to question how accurate our memories are. This thought-provoking novel is recommended for all readers interested in examining the human condition, and the ways we find to make it through life.

    6 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 7, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    This is a wonderful novel.When I reached the conclusion I re-rea

    This is a wonderful novel.When I reached the conclusion I re-read it three times. The writing is masterful and Mr. Barnes gives the reader a protagonist worth analyzing for years to come. I highly recommend for anyone who is looking for intelligent literature.

    6 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 18, 2011

    recommend

    Wonderful writing, simple yet quite complex and intelligent, thought provoking. A great read.

    6 out of 12 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 21, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    He writes a good book...

    So says my husband of Julian Barnes. He's biased, due to their shared Leicestershire roots, but, on the basis of the several Barnes' novels he's read and the couple I've read, I think he's probably right. If you, like me, can be put off a book by its opening chapters seeming self-consciously clever, don't let this get in the way of persevering with 'The Sense of an Ending'. The cool, objective intellectuality of the youths that dominates much of the first part of the book is necessarily undermined by the very human adult story that ensues. This is a relatively short novel but its brevity belies the impact it has on the reader. You find yourself, like Tony, the narrator, re-considering earlier parts of the book as you read later parts, in the light of your growing knowledge - and confusion. It's a clever plot and a story interestingly told. What I think really strikes you reading 'The Sense of an Ending' is how easily people -even those supposedly having the benefit of the wisdom of age- become so convinced of their own version of events, other people's motives and characters, that they lose perspective. The ending in 'The Sense of an Ending' is the kind that restores perspective. If you're looking for a holiday read to get engrossed in, a story that's ultimately compassionate without being sentimental, 'The Sense of an Ending' is a book for you.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 13, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    INTELLECTUALLY STIMULATING. The Sense of an Ending.....an ending

    INTELLECTUALLY STIMULATING.
    The Sense of an Ending.....an ending of???? There were many facets to this novel; an ending of friendship, of ideas, of a philosophy of life, of perceptions,of emotions. This is the story of Tony Webster's life as he thinks back on it, his memories versus perceptions versus reality and how he comes to terms with all of these within himself. This is a short novel-only 163 pages. I thought I would whip through it. I ended up reading it twice. The writing is superb. The style is very intellectual-makes you re-read and think about what the protagonist is thinking about, feeling, experiencing in both past and present. This is not a light read, but worth the effort for a serious reader.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 7, 2012

    Skip this one!

    A book with no point and no plot. Terrible.

    5 out of 14 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 20, 2011

    Highly recommended

    This short novel really deserved the Mann Booker Prize! Extremely well written and provocative.

    4 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 6, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    This short book is a very British read. I found it a tad annoyin

    This short book is a very British read. I found it a tad annoying to follow. When I was done, I felt a bit put off. I like the self reflection piece but the characters were not likable for me. Several reviews said that they immediately re-read the book. I can understand it, because it is short and you kinda end with a big, "Huh?" You will think you missed something. You won't have, you will just be perplexed.

    3 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 2, 2012

    Unique and Compelling

    I’m not even sure this is a novel. It may be a clumsily rambling 1st person essay of brilliant insight on the unreliability of memory and perception disguised as a novel which captures the incompleteness of the fragmented communication of our own era and the unproductiveness of remorse written in equal measures of slogging narrative and genius prose. It is, without doubt, extraordinary.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 19, 2012

    A Great Book

    I read this book almost a year ago, but I can not get it out of my head. If you enjoy a book that makes you think a little, this is a must read.

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 5, 2012

    Ding919

    I read reviews stating how well written and interesting the story is, I recommended it to some friends before I finished it. They told me they will not take any more of my suggestions ever again! Was not a good book, I can't figure out why it got such rave reviews.

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 21, 2012

    Wonderful!

    At times pedantic, and overly self reflective, but on the whole a wonderful read. Hard to put down.

    2 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 12, 2012

    A story you will not soon forget

    Evetything changes once you finish this book the first time. You will immediately want to read it again to really understand what you thought you read the first time. Thought provoking and real and very well written.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 26, 2011

    Highly Recommended

    "The Sense Of An Ending," by Julian Barnes, was delivered yesterday. Today, I highly recommended it.

    2 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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