A Story of History: “The Sense of an Ending” by Julian Barnes

Yes, of course we were pretentious — what else is youth for?

My subtitle is taken from Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending. There’s too much in this little book to bring out in this simple-minded reflection but virtually all of its most prominent themes depend on a rather simple trick. It’s historical. In a few short paragraphs towards the middle of the novel, Barnes leaps from the 1960s to the 21st century; Tony has been married, divorced and had children whose love has always evaded him. There is never the sense that these were somehow irrelevant happenings in the drawn out adventure of his life, only that there’s an undercurrent to his character that they never really touched. The irony is that the aged Tony is united with his younger self by a broken relationship: he remains troubled by the suicide of his best friend.

As to avoid spoiling the story – which is well worth the read – I’ll say this: throughout the novel, you’re fully aware that you can’t trust the narrative. But it’s all you’ve got; and it makes the ending, if you consider its implications for the protagonist’s role in it all, incredibly poignant. Throughout, we’re led to suspect that there’s something more to his friend’s death; that his long, intellectual and philosophical reasoning, left behind in a rational but emotionally distant suicide note, was never sufficient.

And unsurprisingly that is the case. But when Tony is younger, he accepts the idealistic version of events a little too keenly, something which the disdains his more experienced, and I dare say wiser, self. We learn that time and reality detach idealism from people far too easily, but forming this framework is Barnes’ wider, more depressing allusion to history:

History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation (page 17)

This is Tony, the protagonist, in a nutshell. He has brought together the few sources he has on his younger life and formed them into something with which he can live, if not wholly comprehend; and so when later on he reunites with his old girlfriend, Veronica, who gradually unveils the more intimate details, Tony’s adolescence collapses. It makes me think how I’ll remember myself in a few decades from how. Barnes might not have intended this, but I think we can draw a word of action from him: students should take advantage of our petty, slightly ridiculous tendencies to idealism before it grows grey and tired.

History in the making? Or perhaps I’ll just make it when I’m older.

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One Comment on “A Story of History: “The Sense of an Ending” by Julian Barnes”

  1. […] The message, then, is: dream about the future, not the past. […]


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