Monday, July 31, 2017

Reading group: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Warning: plot spoil.

Jenny, who had suggested this Booker-winning novel, said that she had really liked it, and that it had impressed her enough to make her think about her own life. It's a first-person recollection by Tony Webster, now in his sixties, of a life in which a long-ago friendship with a fellow schoolboy and a long-forgotten first girlfriend turn out, in his later years, to affect him subtly but deeply.

The book is composed of two parts, and the first, shorter part encompasses the entire trajectory of Tony's early relationship with the two.

I don't normally relate the plots of novels in great detail in these reports, but I find it necessary for this book since it is in essence a minute examination of the narrator's memory of events and his interpretation of them at the time and years later. In addition it's necessary in order to report our discussion, since as a group we were uncertain about the final interpretation intended.

The story told in Part 1 is this:

Arriving in the sixth form at Tony's grammar school, oddball and more seriously intelligent than Tony and his facetiously clever and witty friends, Adrian nevertheless quickly becomes part of their clique, and indeed its centre, the one to whom the others defer. After school, the group inevitably disperses to jobs and university, though they try for a while to keep in touch. In his first year at university Tony meets Veronica Mary Elizabeth Ford, a somewhat cool and superior and indeed controlling girlfriend. During the first summer vacation, she invites him to her family home. This is a strangely disturbing experience which Tony will later put down to class differences (they are posher than his own middle-class family): Veronica's father is joshingly contemptuous towards him, her elder brother knowingly cynical, and her mother contrastingly attentive yet strangely unmotherly. Oddly, he finds himself left alone with her mother to have breakfast - Veronica, stating, without having ever been given any evidence, that he likes to lie in, has gone walking with her brother and father - and her mother gives him an obscure warning about Veronica, her own daughter. Veronica in turn comes up to London for the day and is introduced to Tony's 'gang' who are still at this point meeting up occasionally in the holidays. For the whole of the following year Tony and Veronica go out together. Veronica has always refused to have sex with Tony (as, narrator Tony explains, was fairly typical at the time), and continues to do so until, at the end of that second year, they break up. It is after this that she consents on one occasion to have sex with him, and it becomes clear that she is not the virgin he has always assumed. Not long after, Adrian, to whom Veronica paid flattering attention on her visit the previous summer, writes to Tony informing him, with what purports to be a show of chivalrous honesty but which Tony senses is other, that he and Veronica are now going out together. Thus, it seems, the cold Veronica has been cheating Tony in one way or another all along.

Tony finally sends a letter to them both telling them 'pretty much what I thought of their joint moral scruples', wishing them good luck, warning Adrian to be prudent as he senses that Veronica has suffered some kind of damage in early life, and suggesting (since Veronica's mother had warned him about her) that Adrian talk to her mother about her. At the time he doesn't even formulate for himself what that 'damage' may be. Now, he muses to the reader about it - some kind of sexual abuse by her father, perhaps - but admits that he cannot know even now. After this episode, he tells us, he put the two of them out of his mind and got on with his own life, travelling and having a brief, friendly affair on his travels with another girl. On his return he discovers that Adrian, although recently found by their mutual friend Alex to be happily in love with Veronica, has taken his own life. (Tony thinks at the time: 'If there was one woman in the entire world a man could fall in love with and still think life worth refusing, it was Veronica.') Adrian has left a letter for the coroner explaining his motives which accord with the fierce logic he applied to such issues when they were schoolboys - 'the superiority of the intervening act over the unworthy passivity of merely letting life happen to you' - a stance which Tony eventually comes to admire, although why Adrian should take his own life while he was apparently so happy remains a mystery.

This completes the story of Tony's youthful involvement with the two, and Part 1 concludes with a brief resume of the intervening years up to the present - a career as an arts administrator and marriage to Margaret, a grownup daughter, a later amicable divorce, and a quiet, orderly retirement as a single man volunteering at the local library and hospital.

However, what the reader has experienced is not just a story, but a meditation on the nature of memory and time, in particular the memory of one's former self and motives:
Again, I must stress that this is my reading now of what happened then. Or rather, my memory now of my reading then of what was happening at the time.
As a result the story being told often slides into uncertainty. The novel indeed begins with an exercise in subjectivity - fleeting and evocative remembered images from moments in the story, presented out of context and resonant with mystery or ambiguity. The conclusion the reader is being led towards is that the story we have just been told is Tony's construction - however sincere - and not necessarily the correct one.

Part 2 begins: 'Later on in life you expect a bit of a rest, don't you?' heralding the fact that, out of the blue, the past of Part 1 will come back to disrupt Tony's apparently settled life.

Veronica's mother, it seems, died five years ago and has puzzlingly left him £500 and 'two documents', one of which is a letter apologising to him for the way the family treated him on his visit all those years ago, and confirming that Adrian was happy in his final months. The other, it will turn out, is Adrian's diary, now however, the lawyer tells him, in Veronica's possession. Thus, on top of the old mystery of Adrian's suicide, a group of new mysteries opens up: Why would Sarah Ford, Veronica's mother, leave Tony £500? (She says in the letter that she's not even sure of her own motives in doing so.) How did she come to be in possession of the dead Adrian's diary? And why, all these years later, has Veronica purloined it, knowing as she must that it was left by her mother to Tony?

His interest in the mystery surrounding Adrian's death reignited, Tony sets off in pursuit of the diary and tries to contact Veronica. She proves elusive but he finally manages to contact her and engage her in an email exchange in which she is cryptic and irritable-seeming - behaviour he doesn't find out of character in view of her former cold and manipulative self. In fact, she answers his first email with a single short phrase which can only refer to his question about why her mother had left him the £500, and which he can make no sense of at all: 'Blood money'. Eventually however he receives via the lawyers a single photocopied 'fragment' from the diary.

This throws up further mysteries. It's an arcane discussion of human relationships in terms of algebra, including some indecipherable equations, and which once again impresses Tony with Adrian's intelligence and rationality. It ends tantalisingly on an incomplete sentence: 'So, for instance, if Tony -'

Tony, unseated by this rupturing of the past into his peaceful life, muses on a possible and likely ending for the sentence: 'If Tony had settled less easily for a passive peacefulness...'

He continues to hassle Veronica and eventually she agrees to meet him. He is shocked by her now worn and shabby appearance. Once again, however, she seems obstructive and uncommunicative. She can't let him have Adrian's diary, she says, because she has burnt it, and dodges his question about the incomplete sentence concerning himself. After only ten minutes, handing him an envelope, she gets up and leaves.

The envelope turns out to contain the letter Tony wrote after learning that Adrian and Veronica were together. It is not at all the measured missive he remembers - although it is clearly the one he wrote - but an outpouring of nastiness and vitriol.
How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? ... My younger self had come back to shock my older self with what that self had been, or was, or was sometimes capable of being.
The events of the past now shift for Tony into an entirely different focus: his former self is revealed to him as callous and self-centred, and Veronica and Adrian appear in a much more sympathetic light. From a less self-centred perspective, even that strange visit to her house seems different: perhaps her brother was not contemptuous towards him after all, but simply not interested in him. No wonder Veronica is contemptuous of him, he thinks, and no wonder she has been reluctant to give him Adrian's diary. His remorse spreads to encompass his whole life: unlike Adrian, he feels, he has settled for the mundanities and failed to live the examined life.

He emails Veronica, apologising for his past behaviour. Her response is again puzzling: 'You just don't get it, do you? But then you never did.'

Now different, fonder memories of their past relationship surface.
I don't know if there's a scientific explanation for this - to do with new affective states reopening blocked-off neural pathways. All I can say is that it happened, and it astonished me.
He asks her to meet him again, more socially, and she agrees, and this time they are more amicable. Once again however she has managed before departing to have told him nothing whatever about her own life, but by the time is he travelling back on the train, Tony's old excitement about her has been rekindled. His hope is shattered on the next meeting, requested again by him: bafflingly, she picks him up in her car from a Tube station in a part of London unfamiliar to him and refuses to speak as she drives furiously and in a way that makes him realises she is nervous. She stops the car and commands that he look at a group of people with learning disabilities walking towards them with their care worker. She gets out and the group mob her with childlike affection, calling her Mary, which is her second name. When Tony asks about it all, she simply repeats that he just doesn't get it, 'and you never will,' and promptly tells him to get out of the car and drives away.

Saddened, Tony realises that this is the end, that he has been foolish to imagine any rekindling of their relationship, but he is curious about this final incident, and begins driving back to the place and hanging out in the pub he heard the group and their care worker talking about visiting on Friday nights. Eventually they come in while he is there, and an odd encounter with one of them, a gangly younger man with glasses, makes him realise who he looks like: Adrian. He is, it comes to Tony in a moment of revelation, Adrian's son.

Was this why Adrian committed suicide? Simply because, after all, like the boy at their school who had done likewise, he wasn't able to face the consequences of getting his girlfriend pregnant? A scenario that must now 'recalibrate' Tony's sense of the honour and dignity and philosophical logic of Adrian's death. With further remorse, Tony imagines the consequent life Veronica must have had as the single mother of a disabled son. He writes to her, once again apologising for his past behaviour, and wishing her and her son a peaceful life. A reply comes back: 'You just don't get it, do you? ... You never will, so stop trying.'

It is on a further visit to the pub that he learns from the care worker what it is he didn't get. That Veronica is not the mother of Adrian's son. She is his sister. Their mother died five years ago.

Everything shifts once more, like the contents of a kaleidoscope. This presumably is behind Adrian's suicide: his impregnation of his girlfriend's mother. Suddenly Tony, and we, can see that on Tony's visit to Veronica's house in the university holiday, her mother's behaviour towards him was sexual, and that Adrian in his turn must have come in for the same treatment. That Veronica, in leaving her mother alone with Tony so unaccountably, was consciously or unconsciously involved in some kind of collusion, and that it is this that is the real damage to her that Tony sensed all those years ago. It explains the algebraic equations in the fragment from Adrian's diary - Tony realises now that the letters are the first letters of all their names, Adrian's, Veronica's, his own, and Sarah's, along with 'b' which stands for 'baby'. And now Tony can complete the unfinished sentence: if he hadn't suggested that Adrian speak to Veronica's mother...

Except that there was some uncertainty in our group about whether this is in fact the intended conclusion. In spite of the explicitness of the passages that ruminate on memory and time, this denouement occurs fairly briefly and glancingly. Doug was thinking of something that had also occurred to others of us, although we had discounted it: the possibility that it is not Adrian but Tony who is the younger man's father. Tony has interpreted things mistakenly on so many occasions, is it not possible that he is failing once more to grasp the truth? Once before, concerning the letter, his memory has edited his behaviour: could it be that he has excised his own sexual behaviour on that long ago vacation visit? If that is intended, I didn't actually find it psychologically realistic - unless, that is, Tony is consciously and calculatedly deceiving the reader whom he addresses directly and confidentially throughout, though there seems little clear evidence this is the case. Tony says he understands now why Sarah left him the money and the diary, and also why Veronica referred to the £500 as 'blood money'. It's presumably a reward for pushing Adrian into her arms by suggesting he speak to her about Veronica. But this seems to me very tenuous (and unlikely) (and it has taken me until now to work out that this is what Tony must mean when he says he understands). These behests would in fact make more sense if there is a blood connection between Tony (rather than Adrian) and Sarah and her son. But then the question arises once more: why did Adrian commit suicide? And the disabled son's name is Adrian, after all, it turns out: presumably he has been named after his father. Examination of the equations in the diary fragment doesn't really help. Adrian and Tony are both represented in the equations by 'a' (Adrian often called Tony by his full name 'Anthony'), and while Tony assumes that a1 represents Adrian and a2 himself, it is after all only an assumption. Wouldn't a1 indeed more logically represent the first boy to have a relationship with Veronica? In any case, though, no one in our group could really be bothered with the equations, which seemed a strangely schoolboy-autistic route to interpreting a novel.

There was comment that the book overall is signally lacking in emotion. This is chiefly, I think, because everything is mediated through Tony's reasoning retrospective speculation, but Mark and (I think) Doug expressed shock at Tony's apparent lack of emotion and flippancy on receiving the news of Adrian's death: when Tony's mother asks him if he thinks Adrian did it because he was too clever, he has the emotional space for the slick sarcastic reply: 'I haven't got the statistics linking intelligence to suicide.' In addition, although this is a short book, it is extremely plot-driven and plot-intensive, which gives the whole thing the somewhat mechanical air of a crossword puzzle - underscored, of course, by the business of the equations.

As indicated above, however, it was a crossword puzzle that left us feeling unable to complete it. No one at the time of the meeting could understand the significance of the memory of the Severn Bore which appears in the list of evocative moments at the start of the book. It was only on my second read through that I realised it is more or less spelled out: when Tony's feelings for Veronica are reignited he compares his emotional reversal to a river running backwards. But this is in fact only a temporary state, and the comparison is buried in Tony's cerebral rationalising rather than conveyed in dramatic action, and the image thus lacks the weight it seems to signal.

No one could fault the prose, which was polished and stylish, as always with Barnes, and witty: I said in the meeting that when I first began reading the book I was very much disarmed by the wittily ironic depiction of the cocky sixth-formers. However, as I read on I couldn't help feeling that the prose of the book shares their clever-clever air of patriarchal privilege, and others agreed. I also felt that although Tony comes to doubt himself, there is nevertheless an overriding self-obsession - it is still, ultimately, Tony's sense of himself and his own dignity with which the book is concerned - which we didn't feel was undercut by authorial irony - unless Doug's interpretation of the ending was correct.

John was particularly critical of the portrayal of Veronica. Jenny accepted Veronica as a horribly cold and manipulative person, but John said this was a male stereotype of women: he couldn't actually see that much wrong with Veronica's behaviour. As Ann and I said, all that was wrong with her in retrospect was that she didn't want to have sex with Tony and, as John said, it is typically and traditionally sexist to condemn a woman as cold and controlling for that. It is true that when Tony realises the truth about his own letter, and then again at the end, Veronica comes to be viewed in a more sympathetic light, but the trouble is that this reassessment takes place entirely on the level of (Tony's) introspective reasoning, whereas the earlier view of her is dramatised and thus made more vivid, consequently leaving a stronger impression. What is dramatised later is her cat-and-mouse treatment of Tony during their later meetings, which, while Tony and the reader are in ignorance about the truth behind it, reinforces a view of her as manipulative and even nasty. In fact, it is hard to fathom the motives behind this behaviour, and I don't find it psychologically convincing: why, having forced Tony so belligerently into an encounter with her disabled brother would she keep avoiding telling him the truth about him - even when Tony makes the mistake of thinking he is her son? I suspect it of being a mere authorial manipulation to stretch out the mystery. The uncovering of the mystery, when it comes, seems both perfunctory and highly artificially manipulated: the younger Adrian has some kind of strange reaction to Tony, for which there is no evident explanation, and it seems merely a device to cause the care worker to seek out Tony and ask him to be careful with him, which then allows for a conversation about him in which the truth is revealed. There was a general feeling in the group that the plot as a whole was indeed over-manipulated and artificial.

John also objected to what he saw as a sexist and ageist view of older women, the disabled son described by Tony as 'born to a mother ... at a dangerously late age. A child damaged as result,' when Sarah had been probably not much more than forty when she conceived him. I said that on the other hand I couldn't help feeling that the whole thing was a bit of a schoolboy-type sexual fantasy about older women, and there was general agreement. I also thought Tony's ex-wife, who obligingly and maternally talks through it all with him, was yet another male stereotype: that of the woman as all-accommodating mother figure. When she does finally get fed up with it - when Tony starts wanting to discuss whether he's in love with Veronica -  she tells him: 'You're on your own now, Tony', the classic pronouncement of a mother forcing her teenage son to stand on his own two feet.

Most of us, particularly the men, found Tony's casual and carefree holiday affair unconvincing: not only did it seem unlikely because of his prior character, we felt that it couldn't have happened without changing him, which there is no evidence it does.

All in all, no one beside Jenny was particularly impressed by the book in spite of its Booker win, though Clare, who had seen the film, said that the book was better, as the book of course is supremely an exercise in interiority which film cannot easily convey.


Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

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