Books

A philosophical suicide — Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending


“I don’t envy Adrian his death, but I envy him the clarity of his life,” says Tony Webster about his friend, who committed suicide when they were at university. Julian Barnes’ award-winning novel The Sense of an Ending explores the themes of history, memory and responsibility while bringing some clarity into Adrian’s death.

Tony, a man in his 60′s, looks back at his life: Four friends at school; a one-year relationship with Veronica at university; a humiliating visit to Veronica’s parents; a split-up; Veronica coming together with his best friend, Adrian; Adrian’s suicide in a bathtub — that’s the first half of The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes’ award-winning novel.

The story Tony tells about his life gets challenged in the second part, when it turns out that Adrian had kept a diary, which surprisingly was in the possession of Veronica’s mother until her death. In her will she passed it on to Tony, but Veronica is reluctant to hand it over. Tony’s efforts to get the diary from Veronica start the second part of the book and end in a complete reassessment of the initial story.

Memory versus documentation

“History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation” [p17]

This sentence forms the structural backbone of the book. The Sense of an Ending has two parts: the first one about the ‘imperfections of memory’ when Tony recalls his student days, and the second part about the ‘inadequacies of documentation’ when Tony hunts for Adrian’s diary. Tony knows that …

“.. [h]istorians need to treat a participant’s own explanation of events with a certain scepticism.”

Or in Adrian’s words:

“[W]e need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us.” [p12]

Tony’s own tale of his student days is quite unreliable. This is why he seeks Adrian’s diary:

“The diary was evidence; it was –might be– corroboration. It might disrupt the banal reiterations of memory” [p77]

Tony has rewriting his life’s history to blend out the parts he doesn’t like and to safe himself from guilt and remorse. After repeating this version to himself and his family over and over again, it is ‘agreed upon’ by everybody, but has become a ‘banal reiteration.’

“How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but — mainly — to ourselves.” [p95]

Responsibility

And why do we all make sly cuts and lie to ourselves? Because we don’t want to take responsibility for some if the things we have done. Responsibility is the other major theme in The Sense of an Ending.

“[T]he question of responsibility: whether there’s a chain of it, or whether we draw the concept more narrowly. I’m all for drawing it narrowly,” [p104]

says Tony. It is no surprise he is: throughout the book he comes across as a coward happy for every excuse. But in the end he is no longer so sure about where to draw the line:

“I looked at the chain of responsibility. I saw my initial in there.” [p149]

The reader is prepared for Tony’s discussion of his own responsiblity for the events surrounding Adrian’s suicide already in the very beginning of the book, when the students discuss the First World War and in particular ‘the responsibility of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassin for starting the whole thing off’. This is one example of how a few major themes percolate the book and connect the two parts with each other.

Connections and reflections

The novel is very well constructed. I had to read it two times in a row to find many of the connections between events in the two parts of the book (and interestingly several reviews I found online did exactly the same).

The way history and responsiblity come up as themes throughout the book is a first example. Another one is how Adrian’s suicide mirrors Robson’s, a student who hangs himself after impregnating a girl. Tony and his friends measure Robson’s death by philosophical and aesthetic standards and find it lacking:

“[Robson’s] action had been unphilosophical, self-indulgent and inartistic: in other words, wrong. His suicide note (…) had missed a powerful educative opportunity” [p14]

Adrian’s suicide on the other hand is not ‘wrong’ at all because it shows ..

“.. the superiority of the intervening act over the unworthy passivity of merely letting life happen to you. (…) An implicit criticism of everybody else” [p50]

Tony is jealous of Adrian’s determination and consistency:

“I don’t envy Adrian his death, but I envy him the clarity of his life.” [p104]

However, the revelations in the second half shed Adrian’s suicide in a completely different light — but I don’t want to give too much away.

Another example of themes running through the book is the very last sentence (‘There is great unrest‘), which echos the beginning [p5], where one of the students answers the teacher’s question ‘How would you describe Henry VIII’s reign’ with ‘There was great unrest‘. This student is described as ..

“.. a cautious know-nothing who lacked inventiveness of true ignorance.”

Which isn’t a bad description for Tony either, and throughout the book he is told ‘You don’t get it, do you?‘ With the last sentence of the book, the narrator admits that indeed, he never got it and he never will.

An Oedipus complex?

While reading the book for the second time I thought to have discovered another theme that might seem a bit more far fetched.

Tony’s quest reminds me of Oedipus and his search for the murderer of the former king. Both stories are tragic investigations into the past; in both stories there is a curse (here in the letter Tony had written to Adrian); in both cases there is a warning of impending doom (here not by the blind seer Tiresias, but by Tony’s ex-wife [p78]), both stories feature sex with ‘the mother’. And even though Tony is not Adrian’s killer, the outcome of his investigation is that he becomes aware of his own role in Adrian’s suicide.

If anybody out there ever wants to write a thesis on ‘The influence of Greek myth on the works of Julian Barnes’ – this might be a good start.

Florian

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