New York. Knopf. 2011. ISBN 9780307957122
When it comes to contemporary British fiction, I've always been more of a Martin Amis man than a Julian Barnes one. However, after reading Barnes's latest Man Booker Prize winner, A Sense of an Ending, all that has changed. After reading this little treasure of a book, I have come to realize that I was missing the subtlety and grace of Barnes's prose. Where Amis may be more clever, and his prose more cutting, Barnes asks more of his reader, but again, more subtly, in more of an understated way. In a sense, Barnes's latest novel is like a very good single malt scotch, where Amis has always been more of a beer.
A Sense of an Ending is a short book, perhaps best read in one sitting, and preferably with that scotch. It is a novel about late middle age that is, I suspect, written for those approaching that time in their lives. The novel, written in two parts, tells a story about Anthony (Tony) Webster, perhaps the most boring and least likable protagonist in years. Part 1 recounts Webster's younger years and his friendship with two boys his age. When a third boy, Adrian Finn, walks into their lives, they are immediately taken with him. Throughout these recounted episodes, Webster begins dating Veronica Mary Elizabeth Ford, a young woman who may or may not be stringing him along. The first part ends with the suicide of Adrian.
The second part of the novel takes place many years later, with Webster divorced from his wife, Margaret, and in retirement. When he receives a mysterious letter from a lawyer informing him that Veronica's mother has left him five hundred pounds and Adrian's diary in her will, his past suddenly comes creeping back into his consciousness.
The rest of the book slowly reveals secrets and self-deceptions kept hidden by the weight of buried memories. Webster finds himself "on his own" as he attempts to navigate his way, sometimes awkwardly and shamefully, through the mystery of the last forty years of his life. But it's really the writing itself that stands out. There is a profound sadness here, and instead of turning the reader away, it grabs hold and forces us to listen to what it has to say.
Many "big" authors have recently taken up the subject of late middle age. Among those perhaps most prominent are J. M. Coetzee and Philip Roth. Yet Barnes does something with the subject that feels, at least to this reader, more honest than the others. Barnes gives us a sense of an ending rather than an ending. And perhaps that's all life really is—an ending that can only be sensed from all of the seemingly disparate strands of our lives, like some detached tension wires as they flail and snap in the wind and rain.
Southern New Hampshire University
The Sense of an Ending is an adaptation of Julian Barnes’s 2011 Man Booker prize-winning novel starring Jim Broadbent (we love Jim Broadbent), Harriet Walter (we love Harriet Walter) and Charlotte Rampling (we love, love, love Charlotte Rampling). With such a cast, you’d be minded to think it can’t fail, and it doesn’t in this respect. The performances are transfixing throughout. But it does not satisfy emotionally, as the ending of The Sense of an Ending makes no sense. It’s a (Non)Sense of an Ending. Same with the book, which, on completing, I think I threw across the room with a: what? Is that it?
As directed by Ritesh Batra (The Lunchbox), and as set in a London where you seem to be able to get from Highgate to a south-west postcode in a jiffy — I couldn’t help noticing; sorry — the film has Broadbent playing Tony Webster, who is divorced, runs a small vintage-camera shop, and is melancholic, grumpy, wry. In other words, it’s a role with ‘Jim’ and ‘Broadbent’ written all over it. And when a role has ‘Jim’ and ‘Broadbent’ written all over it, then you want Jim Broadbent to play it, and he manages to make Tony sympathetic, and even endearing, whereas otherwise he almost certainly wouldn’t be. Tony lives a dull, closed-down, emotionally detached kind of life, which you may not quite believe, perhaps because Broadbent makes Tony rather too alert — those bright-blue eyes, have they ever missed anything? — but you just have to buy this, plus the way he’s suddenly rocked to his core by an event that forces him to Confront. His. Past. This occurs when the mother of his university girlfriend, Veronica, wills him £500 and the diary of his school friend, Adrian, who dated Veronica after they went their separate ways. Why was Tony in her will? Why does she have Adrian’s diary? What does the diary say? We are hyped for disclosure and then, ideally, closure. That, rightly or wrongly, is our narrative expectation. Yet we will be sorely thwarted here.
The action is divided, somewhat prosaically, between two timelines. There’s the past, with Tony flashing back to his schooldays (he is played by Billy Howle as a young man) and his friendship with Adrian (Joe Alwyn) — we are told he was brilliant, yet we see little evidence — as well as his relationship with Veronica (Freya Mavor), who takes him to stay with her family for a very odd kind of weekend filled with sexual tension, and fried eggs gone wrong. And then there’s the now, which has Tony explaining what happened back then, as far as he remembers, to his ex-wife Margaret (Walter; terrific), who is a very long suffering ex-wife. (I think if my ex-husband kept trucking up to go over and over the details of his first-ever girlfriend, I’d mostly draw the curtains, cower behind the sofa and pretend to be out.) The two have a pregnant daughter (Michelle Dockery, whom we don’t yet love, but she is young and still has time). And Rampling, meanwhile, plays the Veronica of today. She is awarded the least screen time and is given rather little to do, but Rampling does not need much screen time or much of anything to do to be riveting. Although quite why Veronica is so bitter, we don’t know. And quite why she doesn’t take some responsibility for what occurred we also don’t know. There’s a lot we don’t know, irritatingly.
This is about memory, how we slice and dice our pasts to come up with a self we can live with. Tony does make a discovery — to do with a letter he sent all those years ago; is that it? — although why that makes him the one responsible… you guessed it, we don’t know. But his new self-knowledge, such as it is, has a powerful redemptive effect. Tony has learned to feel again; Tony has learned to feel for his daughter, his ex-wife, even the postman. And we never understand why. We don’t expect every loose end to always be tied up — even though it would be nice — but you do, I think, have the right to expect some understanding of why.
That said, the performances certainly lift this above being yet another film about middle-aged, middle-class people pootling around London (in a jiffy!) while fretting about themselves. But it is entirely about the journey, not the destination. Just so you know.