Sunday, January 1, 2012

Julian Barnes writes a thoughtful novella.

I have enjoyed Booker-prize-winning Julian Barnes in the past, and I was delighted to read his latest novel. Its winning the 2011 Man Booker Prize only made it more delectable.

The Sense of an Ending

The Sense of an Ending (176 pages, Knopf, $23.95) takes the form of a ruminative memoir. I called it a novella above because it has the shape of something briefer than a novel, almost a long short story. That’s in part because it has a moral twist of an ending that reminds the reader of some of the best American short stories. Barnes perhaps over-invests his shocking ending with explanatory power. What is really powerful is everything that comes before the ending.

Like many British memoirists, the hero, Tony Webster, ruminates over relationships in so-called public school. Tony has two close friends at school, and they are smart enough to spend their time “taking the piss” out of their teachers and putting up their noses at the whole idea. Then along comes Adrian Finn, and they find themselves rethinking their position. They can never tell whether the brilliant Adrian is taking the piss or not.

Tony is especially fascinated with Adrian, and he spends time spinning out his ideas from memory, as he looks back after forty years. He also looks back on his frustrating and only semi-fulfilling relation with a enigmatic girl called Victoria. Even when he breaks up with Victoria, he is not sure where he stands with her. He almost seemed to get along better with her mother than he did with her.

Imagine his surprise, then, when Victoria’s mother leaves him a small legacy after her death thirty-some years on. After Tony broke with Victoria, she took up with Adrian, and at the time of their marriage, he wrote them both off as lost causes.

In the ensuing years, Tony had a successful, if uneventful, life. And now that he has to confront the past once again, because of the particular nature of the legacy, Adrian finds himself swept up in emotions that he thought he had put to rest.

As Tony tries to pry some secrets out of Victoria and confront his own earlier emotions, all his suppositions collapse and he finds himself confronting features of the past quite different from those he has constructed for himself.

This is exciting, in its way, and it does show Barnes at his most subtle and sophisticated. I enjoyed the novel a lot, but I think the plot would have made a great short story too.

Julian Barnes

The Sense of an Ending is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

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