Should Your Book Club Read The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes?

Should your book club read The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes?  The answer to this question: yes, resoundingly so.  In fact, I think this book should only be read with others because I guarantee you will have more questions than answers when you finish it.

You probably know by now that Julian Barnes, nominated multiple times in the past for the Man Booker prize, finally clinched the award this year with his The Sense of an Ending.  I say “his” because there is another book by the same title, a collection of lectures by the literary critic Frank Kermode, published in 1967, and if you really want some light shed onto Julian Barnes’ novel, I advise you to pick up Kermode’s book.  Warning, though–it’s not light reading.

So, what can your book club discuss after reading Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an EndingThe following contains many spoilers, so don’t read anymore if you haven’t finished the book!

Julian Barnes has described his book as being about how time affects memory and how memory affects time, and undoubtedly, you will want to explore this.

Coupled with the above, you will want to delve into the character of the narrator, Tony.  Just how reliable, or unreliable, is Tony?  You should consider his relationships–how he describes them versus how they really are.  So, think about his relationship with his daughter, with his ex-wife, with Adrian, and with Veronica, for example.  Importantly, think about his relationship with you, the reader.  Is he telling you the truth?  Is he telling himself the truth?  Remember at all times–Tony is narrating this story.  And he tells (warns?) us at the very start of the book, “…what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.”

Along with time and memory, you’ll want to explore what the book is saying about history.  There are different definitions of it–what is the significance of history and how it is defined?  Pay attention to documentation and corroboration.

While considering time, memory, and history, pay attention to the Severn Bore scene.  Also, note how watches are worn…and what is said about subjective vs. objective time…

You’ll want to talk about the theme of sex and death (Eros and Thanatos) in the book.  What is the book saying about suicide?  Why does Adrian commit suicide?

Now, I warned you above that this blog post contains spoilers galore, so stop reading now if you haven’t read the book!

If you do take a look at Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending, you’ll want to think about peripeteia.  And then you’ll want to talk about how this concept relates to Julian Barnes’ novel.  And then you’ll want to consider how it relates to your experience reading this book.

And then…I predict you will have a rousing discussion, with more questions than answers.  For instance…

What do we really know at the end of this story?  Did Adrian father a child with Veronica’s mother?  Does the child really look like Adrian, or is that what Tony would like to believe, or is that what he would like us to believe? 

Is Tony the father?  When a very astute Literary Masters member first proposed this, I thought, “no way…” but then we talked about it…and it started to seem like he could be…

What did happen that weekend at Veronica’s house?  Why did Veronica’s mother tell Tony not to let Veronica get away with too much?  What was she doing with the eggs?  And what did her hand gesture mean?  Did Tony and Sarah get together that weekend?

What did Veronica mean when she said “he’ll do” and why did she leave Tony with her mother while she went off with her father and brother?

What did Tony mean when he told Adrian that Veronica was “damaged a long way back”?

Why did Sarah bequeath 500 pounds to Tony?  Could Tony have given Sarah the money to terminate the pregnancy, and because she didn’t, she returned the money, albeit years later?  Is that why Veronica suggested that it could be “blood money“?

Veronica repeatedly tells Tony that he just doesn’t get it.  What does she mean, exactly?

Why did Sarah have Adrian’s diary?  Why did Sarah bequeath the diary to Tony?  Why do we, the readers, not get to see it?

What is the meaning of the mathematical equation in the diary fragment?

No doubt you will want to discuss whether the point of this book is that we can’t know all the answers.  You’ll want to talk about how the way we “know” reality at all is through our (by definition, unreliable) memory, and time (along with a host of other factors) distorts memory.   But still, don’t you want to know the answers to some of the above questions?

The New York Times ran an obituary for Frank Kermode, which you can read here.  In it, the English literary critic Lawrence S. Rainey is referred to because he had described a central theme of Frank Kermode’s writing as being  “the conflict between the human need to make sense of the world through storytelling and our propensity to seek meaning in details (linguistic, symbolic, anecdotal) that are indifferent, even hostile, to story.”  The obituary goes on to say that “Mr. Kermode analyzed the fictions we invent to bring meaning and order to a world that often seems chaotic and hurtling toward catastrophe,” and that Kermode also pointed out “narratives, just like life, can include details that defy interpretation.”

So, is that what I’ve been doing with regard to Julian Barnes’ novel?  Have I been focusing on the details of the story, trying to extract meaning from (or is it impose meaning upon?) them, when they actually defy interpretation?  If so, isn’t this book exactly like life in that regard?

Yet, on the other hand, if we persist in our search for answers, there’s always the chance that we’ll find them, right?

Well, I came away from this book (and I read it twice) with many more questions than answers.  And the answers I did have never seemed to be definitive.  There always seemed to be an alternative answer for each question.  If your book club reads this novel, and if your book club thinks it knows the answers, please share!

WHIRL is on a Roll!

As you all know, WHIRL stands for What Have I Read Lately, and I must say, I have read some wonderful books lately.  Don’t you just love it when your reading is on a roll, so to speak?  So.what have I read lately?  Read on to find out:

You know from my previous post that I loved The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham.  I loved it so much, I went to the library and took out another novel by Maugham, The Razor’s Edge.  This was one of those books that you look forward to returning to when you’ve finished whatever else it is you must do.  Many of the same themes are present in this novel that are in The Painted Veil, and there’s much here to ponder, but, as we all know, it’s the story that matters most, and this story is compelling.

Isabel is in love with Larry and he’s in love with her.  However, Isabel wants the good life, the fun life, the high society bourgeois life.  And Larry is in search of something else.  Something else entirely.  So how to reconcile their differences and hold onto their love?  This is a large part of the story–but not all of it.  You’ll meet other wonderful characters, you’ll contemplate what “love” really is, you’ll ponder how one should live, and what makes a successful life.  This is a slow-paced page-turner, if that’s not too much of an oxymoron for you.

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes.  Oh, we all know by now that this novella won the Booker Prize this year, and you probably have read many reviews on it.  I quite enjoyed it, but I have to say, and you won’t understand this until you’ve read it, I felt a little cheated when I was through.  Yes, it is worth reading.  Absolutely.  And YES, I get that my feeling was part of the point of the book.  But I just think that it came up just short of being a WOW of a book for me.  I can’t say why because that would give too much away.  So you’ll just have to read it and see what I mean.  Enjoy!

Obviously I liked Barnes’ writing because I went straight to the library and took out Arthur and George by the same author.  Now, this book I loved.  It is a bit on the slowish side, just a tad, but it is so good.  It is based on the true story of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle helping to clear the erroneous conviction of George Edalji, a half-Indian son of a vicar.  This is a fantastic book–it was short-listed for the Booker in 2005, and there is MUCH to ‘dig deep into’–I may just choose it one of these days for a Literary Masters Salon selection.

What about you?  What have you read lately?