Wandering & Pondering: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
There’s a whole class of books that fit into the category of what I like to call “the wander and ponder,” and most of them are so slow a read as to be on par with standing in line at the DMV. You get existential dread, a kind of mega-ennui, as you realize every second spent flipping these pages is a second you could’ve been doing just about anything else. You could be fly-fishing, learning Russian, or jumping off a bridge. In certain sections of these sluggish books the bridge doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, while certainly fitting into the wander and ponder classification, is anything but boring. Barnes proves that you can take that trope of a man looking out a kitchen window at a deciduous tree, sipping some chamomile, thinking about his past, and, with linguistic flair, make it absolutely riveting.
Now while The Sense of an Ending might be technically lacking in autumnal foliage, it certainly gives off that impression—that contemplative state of being, playing only to the front rows, in a minor key. There’s a depth, though, in the psychological candor of the novel, that imbues it with a Londoner’s magic.
Protagonist Tony Webster begins his narration in the same vein as some of Barnes’s other books: a reflection on memory and time, on the human perception of these complexities.
“We live in a time—it holds us and moulds us—but I’ve never felt I understood it very well. And I’m not referring to the theories on how it bends and doubles back, or may exist elsewhere in parallel versions. No, I mean ordinary, everyday time, which clocks and watches assures us passes regularly: tick-tock, click-clock.”
Our narrator establishes right on the first page that this novel will climb onto the saddle of “the wander and ponder” horse, gather up its reins and take it for a strut. What you don’t know, at least not initially, is that the horse’s strut turns into an exultant gallop, and you weren’t even sure when it started to do so.
The book is deceptively short, novella-length, really, but it is rich beyond simple measure. It’s length technically places it in the one-sitting read category, and I in fact did just that the second time I took it off my shelf. The Sense of an Ending, which was the first Julian Barnes I ever read (and quickly prompted another four purchases of his work), has one of those rare qualities that I often associate with Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer (which surprised many when it won the National Book Award in probably one of the most competitive years ever, since it was competing with Catch-22 and Revolutionary Road). That quality is the book’s ethereal hold on you long after you read it, despite—and this is the real kick—not being able to describe what it’s about.
Sure, I can reiterate the book’s jacket, and say how it’s about a middle-aged man contending with his past, and what that means when a childhood friend reinserts himself into Tony Webster’s life, but the main character is living out the casual drift of non-threatening retirement after a failed marriage and broken family, and it’s left him perilously reflective.
The Sense of an Ending won the Man Booker Prize in 2011, and after having had his novels shortlisted multiple times, Barnes said (when questioned about the ratio of nominations to win), “I think this is the best novel I’ve written in the past five years, and certainly the best I’ve published in the last twelve months… As soon as you hear ‘canon,’ let alone that word ‘oeuvre,’ you reach for your sleeping pills. I don’t look at my books in a totality, I look at them as individuals, and some of them I like more than others.”
It’s interesting, because despite the almost jarring similarities between the wander/ponder of his first novel, Metroland, and having the near identical structure repeated in The Sense of an Ending, you understand why someone might pursue that line of questioning. It’s also apparent that yes, indeed, some of these books are better than others; some books give off the rudimentary odor of cheap perfume—amateurish but charming, at their best. And some books lift you up off the ground and flip you this way and that in the stratosphere, with your back to the Earth, so that all you can see are the stars.