Sunday, November 27, 2011

BACK TO THE CLASSICS CHALLENGE - The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Awhile back, I read A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon (an interesting enough book but I liked his The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time better.) Since then, I notice I’ve been reading more books in a genre that had never appealed to me previously. I can’t explain why these books keep falling into my hands. These are literary or literary-ish explorations of the lives of middle-aged men. Not mid-life crisis age. The protagonists have weathered that. They are past the stage of the affairs or divorces or whatever else happens during that "is this all there is?" panic. These men are in a more contemplative mood and Wham! A different sort of crisis hits.

I’m not sure what drew me to Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson, but it was a sweet, gentle, satisfying novel that cheered me last year. More recently, I read The Upright Piano Player by David Abbott, beautifully written but depressing. And now, even though I thought I was done with books about old men, I decided to read Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending.

Why? For one, it is the winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize, so it should be good, right?

Here’s another reason. When I started my adventure as a blogger and began hopping around to other book blogs a lot, I saw mention of Flaubert’s Parrot (by Julian Barnes) on a blog one day. This book is on my shelf. I read it in college and thought I remembered it. The blogger loved it and so I commented that I did too. Then I saw it mentioned on another blog later with another glowing review. As I read the review it occurred to me that I had no memory of the story. (I had mis-remembered an entirely different book.) But Flaubert’s Parrot is on my bookshelf. So I asked my husband about it. (Could it possibly have been his book?) He said that I had, in fact, read it in college. I’d loved it so much I told him to read it.

I found this disturbing, but not all that surprising –my recall for details of novels is terrible. However, now that this book has been brought back to my attention, I see it mentioned with some frequency and the fact that my mind is a blank is driving me nuts. I’ve decided that I have to re-read it. But I’ve been promising myself this for about a year now. I have a hard time re-reading books when I have so much new to read. So... when I saw that Julian Barnes’s new book had won this prestigious prize I thought I’d read it instead. Or maybe first – I’m still determined to re-read Flaubert’s Parrot. But, to make myself feel better, I bought The Sense of An Ending.

And here’s what made me read it.

I gave up on, or recognized that I needed more time for, the book I’d chosen for my "book I think might be considered a 21st century classic" for the Back-to-the-Classics Challenge. That was The Serf, the Knight and the Historian by Dominique Barthélemy. I chose it because it was so critically well received and is supposed to be representative of 21st century medieval historiography. I suspect it is as important and groundbreaking as the critics say, but I have to read it very, very slowly. Eventually I will finish reading it, but I wouldn’t dare attempt to review it.

So I needed another 21st century classic. The chair of the 2011 Man Book Prize said: "Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending has the makings of classic English literature. It is exquisitely written, subtly plotted, and reveals new depths with each reading."

So there you go. I’m not going to argue with Stella Rimington. It has the makings of classic English literature and here it is the 21st century! So my challenge is completed.

And it’s a marvelous book. I don’t want to include any spoilers, so here’s my rather discombobulated review.

Tony Webster is an older gentleman looking back on his life, reevaluating what he thought to be true. He doesn’t relate his whole life story, just the pertinent facts. He’s not a reliable narrator. He knows he’s not. He spends some time ruminating on history and memory, letting the reader know that he is perfectly aware pieces are missing from the story but he’s doing his best to reconstruct it.

Once he has presented his past succinctly, we are introduced to the current dilemma. He is then forced to reopen issues from his past and examine them again.

You may or may not be surprised by the unfolding of the plot. Tony is a somewhat difficult character. He’s not particularly likeable but I didn’t have the problem of disliking him to put me off the book. His life story is rather ordinary as he presents it. He’s downplaying the plot of his life, perhaps on purpose, but in fact, the details of his life are rather dull. He’s emotionally disconnected from people and doesn’t quite understand why. The great tragedy of his life doesn’t actually even concern his life. He lived his life and, for the most part, missed it. I didn’t care about Tony, but I was interested in him.

How can that be?

It wasn’t the plot or the characters. In this short, intense piece of literature, it is entirely the language. Julian Barnes is a masterful writer. The book teems with insight, perfectly phrased. It transcends poor Tony and the broken people around him. It’s a book to savor and (dare I say it?) re-read. But first I have to re-read Flaubert’s Parrot!

My challenges for 2011 are done. Thank you to Sarah, Sab, Stephanie, and the team at Historical Tapestry for hosting these fun experiences this year and inspiring me!


  1. I was probably one of those Flaubert's Parrot quoters :D It remains one of the most unique books I've ever read and I also read it in college for a seminar. And recall of any book but especially FP can be challenging. No only gives you more incentive to re-read :)

  2. I could have been one of those gushing bloggers too. I loved Flaubert's Parrot (and indeed would love to reread it). I asked for a copy of Sense of an Ending for Christmas, so I have a copy in my possession now! I'm hoping to read it next month. I enjoyed your post but didn't read the last bit specifically about TSOAE, as I don't want to know too much about it. There's certainly been quite a bit of gushing in the media here (a bookshow on radio and tv have well and truly gushed about it recently). While that always makes me nervous I'm still keen to read it too.