Julian Barnes: The Sense of an Ending

I’ve often thought that Julian Barnes is unfairly castigated as a middlebrow muddler of a novelist. (Don’t ask for citations, but it’s definitely a vibe I’ve picked up over the years.) True, he is the author of England, England, one of the worst novels I’ve read, but otherwise, with titles like Flaubert’s Parrot, A History of the World in 10½ Chapters and Talking it Over/Love etc., he shows some appetite for adventure in form. His last novel, Arthur & George, while a pretty straight story, was a credit to the much maligned genre of literary fiction, and earned him the modern book publicity double whammy: a Booker shortlisting and a seat on Richard & Judy’s sofa. After six years and nothing to show but a disappointing memoir on death (Nothing To Be Frightened Of), I wondered if we would ever get more fiction from him. Then, in quick succession, a new collection of stories, and this slim novel.

The Sense of an Ending is a memoir on death, again, but a fictional one this time. The title, and the sumptuously funereal appearance of the UK hardback edition, suggest that this is a subject on which Barnes has not yet written himself out. That may be inevitable: Barnes is 65 years old, and his former friend Martin Amis observed that intimations of mortality come so thick that after the age of forty, “it’s a full-time job looking the other way.” There may be another reason, indirectly connected to the former friend too, of which more later.

In the book, Tony Webster is looking back on his life, or one particular arc of it, to do with a gifted schoolfriend, a girl, and an everyday tragedy. Tony is an interesting study: retired, particular, clearly somewhat lonely: “I had wanted life not to bother me too much, and had succeeded – and how pitiful that was.” His only regular human contact is his ex-wife Margaret, with whom he continues to get on well: indeed, she seems to be his only friend. She, with apparent disinterest, offers him advice on what to do when his teenage experience with ex-girlfriend Veronica starts to trouble him again. Why worry now about something that happened forty years ago? Because it involves death, and Tony is not getting any younger. And because the past is never dead; it is not even past.

What this boils down to is a sort of quest for Tony. He wants to read his schoolfriend Adrian’s diary, which involves first tracking down Veronica and then persuading her. As we might expect from Barnes, all this is delivered in an analytical and discursive style; he moves the story on as an essayist works through his arguments. The clever-cleverness of youth gives way to the agnoticism of middle age. There are regrets, recognitions and renegotiations: “I thought of the things that had happened to me over the years, and of how little I had made happen.” What begins as a solvable mystery – how can Tony persuade Veronica to release Adrian’s diary? – turns into “something much larger, something which bore on the whole of my life, on time and memory. And desire.” Tony ends up unsure whether “my life had increased, or merely added to itself,” and there is a thick plottiness to the ending, or endings, which is surprising if not entirely satisfying.

The central character of the book is not Veronica, or Adrian, though their actions are central to it. The story is told by Tony and, as a consequence, is about Tony. He throws doubt on his own reliability (which led me to trust him implicitly), questions his own motives, and does his best to honour Adrian’s complaint from decades ago (which I suspect also reflects Barnes’s view): “I hate the way the English have of not being serious about being serious. I really hate it.”

Reading The Sense of an Ending, a thought kept coming back to me. With the book’s repeated motif of regrettably rude correspondence – such as Tony’s own toe-curling letter to Adrian and Veronica brought back from the dead – I wondered if it might have been inspired, in part, by Barnes’s well-reported rift with Martin Amis. This arose in January 1995 when Amis left his UK agent, Barnes’s wife Pat Kavanagh, and went all-in with his US agent, Andrew Wylie. In response, Barnes repudiated their friendship in a letter which Amis, in his memoir Experience, described as “blunderingly ugly,” and which ended with the words ‘Fuck off.’ How’s that for, as Tony describes Veronica’s identically worded email to him here, a “two-word, two-finger response”? (Amis tried to revive the friendship a year later, in vain: “It was said that I turned away – and I don’t do that. I won’t be the one to turn away.”) Could it be that Kavanagh’s recent death – the book is dedicated to her – has made Barnes feel how his character feels on reading his vicious old letter? “Remorse, etymologically, is the action of biting again: that’s what the feeling does to you. Imagine the strength of the bite when I reread my words.” Could it be? Perhaps, perhaps not; but it added piquancy to my reading.

Still, what cannot be in doubt is that this is Barnes’s most death-pervaded book since, well, his last one. Death, getting close every day, is always personal. In Frank Kermode’s work of literary criticism from which Barnes takes his title, “the sense of an ending” refers to apocalypticism, the end of the world. Barnes’s concern here is far more serious than that.


  1. Interesting that the book is based on two men and a woman. Is there a ‘sense’ that this trio of characters resemble the ones in Talking It Over and Love etc?

  2. Really didnt like this one. My main problem was school / uni sections where the characters seemed so unreal and out of time (it felt as if it was happening in the 40s/50s). I struggled to get past my gut reation of people that age just wouldnt act,think and talk that way. Even accepting the fact that this may be Barnes having Tony Webster transfer is current thoughts and tastes onto to his younger self (to reinforce the message of how our memories shape our past), however there is no sense of nostalgia (through the details of popular culture, etc) that should pepper someones memory

  3. Clare, I liked Talking it Over and Love etc. but there is no real connection with this book. It’s a much more introspective book, and whereas those novels had each character speaking directly to the reader, in this one everything is seen through the prism of Tony’s viewpoint.

    cathedralofsound, I hadn’t thought about the possibility of details of popular culture etc, but now that you’ve mentioned them, I’m glad they didn’t feature! They’re too often used (as Philip Hensher has pointed out) as a lazy shorthand for recreating a certain time and place. I’d say also that, as his character is roughly of an age with him, Barnes is probably being fairly accurate as to his own recollections of that time.

    1. Just found this as Googling the Barnes/Amis feud and wanted to add that I also hate the shoe horning of lists of cultural details into period books by lesser authors. I don’t mind if they are in addition to sense of time and place carefully built up, but please not instead of. I don’t feel that they are necessary if author has taken care to build up the overall atmosphere.

  4. I notice you’re much more descriptive than analytical here John – as in you say what the book is but not much about how you responded to it. Does that reflect a lack of real chemistry between you and it? You seem to have found less to say than usual.

    Hm, noting your reply to Clare as I write this it seems it didn’t really connect with you.

    The New Statesman had an excellent review of this criticising it for not leaving room for the reader to form their own view – Barnes intervening constantly to make explicit that which the reader might otherwise intuit on their own. Any thoughts on that?

  5. Easily my favourite of the Barnes books I’ve read. I thought this was masterfully executed. As KevinfromCanada has pointed out, it may be too short for the Booker, but very much fits the bill otherwise.

  6. the responses are all over the map on this one. when reading Barnes’ fiction i often get the sense i’m perusing someone’s very nicely written, but not especially interesting, essay (as opposed to the sense i get when i read Barnes’ actual essays, which are generally very entertaining). this book’s getting a lot of positive press, but i still have the nagging feeling that the schoolmarm who wrote Flaubert’s Parrot et al is behind this one as well – authorial interjections, not trusting the reader, etc. just like Max, then, i’m wondering if John can fill us in a little more. even if slim, is it worth engaging with?

  7. I thought this was an excellent short novel. I too have an ambiguous relationship with Barnes — I know I have read four or five previously, but I would have to retreat downstairs and pull them out to remind me what they were about which hardly places him in the first rank.

    This one I will remember. I won’t dispute your description of “a memoir on death” but would plead for a more compassionate offering. At 65, Barnes knows well that three-quarters of his life has been lived (on the up-side, that means there is a quarter still to go) and that undoubtedly leads to looking back. For me, the strength of the novel was the way he distinguished between “shame”, “guilt” and “remorse” when he looked at what had happened in the past — and this is clearly an examination of remorse. Lee is kind in referencing my review but even more kind in leaving out another qualifier that I included — perhaps you need to be in your 60s to truly appreciate this work (which certainly doesn’t disqualify spring chickens like youself from having an opinion).

    Your review does not mention that Tony has been “bequeathed” Adrian’s diary by Veronica’s mother (along with the strange sum of 500 pounds) and Veronica is refusing to hand it over. I assume the omission is deliberate — if you want to put a SPOILER heading on this comment please do. We know that early in the novel and, for me, it added a layer of uncertainty that was quite relevant. It also helps explain the search as being more than just an exercise in “remorseful” memory — there are ominous overtones in it from the start.

    While I was aware of the Barnes/Amis feud, I certainly did not know the details as well as you do. And I have to say that if I did, it would have influenced my opinion of the book (negatively) because it could not have been overlooked. I appreciate reading your summary, but am equally glad that I did not know all of it before I read the novel. I suspect that that history, rather than the shortness of the novel, may weigh even more heavily on the Booker jury’s mind when it comes to shortlist and eventual winner. Although, given their record so far, one has to wonder if they are even aware of it.

    And of course Amis did his own look back last year with The Pregnant Widow — I guess that’s what those of us in our 60s do in our spare time. I’d take this one over the Amis any time. Linda Grant’s We Had It So Good (no reason to reveal the author’s age), on the other hand, would provoke some thinking in my mind about which is the better novel — I do wish it was on the longlist. Barnes creates a compelling picture of an individual, Grant captures a generation. Different types of books, of course, but still worthy of comparison — maybe I should just end up liking both.

  8. Thanks for the comments everyone. Kevin, I did omit details as I wanted to avoid giving away very much about the story, as it does so rely on significant developments throughout (the Guardian review compared it with a Roald Dahl story, which I thought a surprising but apt link).

    Max, I didn’t intend or realise that this review was more descriptive than analytical – indeed see my reply to Kevin above re descriptions of what happens in it. However I suppose it’s difficult to be analytical without describing what you’re analysing. (Actually isn’t that the holy grail for the book reviewer? To make something of equal interest to those who have, and have not, read the book? And so to strike a balance between anaylsis for those who have read it, and avoiding spoilers for those who haven’t?) In any event, for the avoidance of doubt, I did like the book very much. Again though, I find myself less drawn generally to saying what I thought of the book – “seeing which way it rubs [me] up,” as Martin Amis puts it in the introduction to The War Against Cliché – and trying to do something which will let people make their own mind up about whether they might want to read it, unencumbered by a thumbs up or down from me. Of course there are (many) exceptions, in cases of books which I feel I need to shout about so that they can be given a little of the attention they deserve.

    Jay, as I hope is now clear, I do think the book worth engaging with, though it does have that essayistic quality at times. The David Cohen Prize, since you ask (and you’re not the first person I know to have reacted in that way to the cover flash), is a lucrative prize (£40,000) awarded every two years to a British novelist. As one of those lifetime achievement awards, it does have an unfortunate tendency to lead its winners to the grave soon after (Harold Pinter, Muriel Spark and Beryl Bainbridge are all recipients since its creation in 1993).

  9. I actually thought that I hadn’t read any of Julian Barnes novels and when saw he was on the Man Booker longlist sort of rolled my eyes a bit. Isn’t that awful? I am being honest enough to admit it. I then realised it was THE very same Julian Barnes who wrote the wonderful, and I still think of this book from time to time, ‘Arthur and George’ and thought ‘ooh maybe I should read this’. I had been put off after trying, and failing, with England, England a few years ago. Now that I have seen you thought that was a dire book and a slight possible blip in his career I feel relieved somewhat. I shall try and get my mitts on this, the library doesnt currently have it sadly.

  10. Thanks Simon and Ger (welcome, Ger: from your blog, you seem to have an interest in the same sort of thing that I do. I couldn’t find Alfred Hickling’s review of Pereira Maintains though, that you found wanting. Do you have a link?).

    Simon, I think the reception has generally been pretty positive toward the book, and I do think you should try it. Maybe people just defer to Barnes (as I think they do – too much – to Ian McEwan) – or maybe it’s just that generally, he is very good.

    Someone I spoke to who loved The Sense of an Ending thought it might be his last book. Certainly the title could be a great big hint, but also the valedictory tone and content. Hm, great unrest if that were the case.

    1. Hi John, it was just a brief review in the ‘Fiction’ round-up on p 13 of Review, 6 August, just under Nicholas Lezard’s Choice. Sorry I don’t have a link – in fact I couldn’t find it on the Guardian site – so I got a hard copy. Yes, I do enjoy what you do and find the same problems with the English literary scene and its deference to a few names. I have just done the New Finnish Grammar [Marani]. Are you going to review it? Ger

    1. I loved the book but I wonder the same thing, Mrs B.

      I think there is something (or things) in the diary which made Veronica’s mother think that Tony should have it. I’m kind of bewildered that we don’t find out why, given that everything else ended up being explained fairly fully.

    2. Thank you , I thought I was really thick or something but I found the ‘Blood Money ‘ didn’t make any sense to me.
      Enjoyed most of the book but rubbish ending.

  11. Thank you for this review – exploratory and thought-tickling. I’ve just discovered your blog and enjoy your reviewing “voice”.

    I found you by Googling for views of Barnes’ latest, which I finished last night – love it. Could go on, but will just comment that, for me, it has something of the impact of a grown-up take on John Fowles’ “The Magus”, without the sensationalism. The narrator is as emotionally illiterate as Fowles’ Nicholas – neither will ever really “get it”!

    1. It also reminded me of The Magus..the clever, clever youth..the sense of intrigue and unease..the feeling that the narrator can’t be fully trusted. Also the feeling that there is some deep meaning behind it all that you can’t quite get at.

    1. Veronica’s mother in her late age had a child with Adrian. It was Tony who hinted at the possibility in the earlier letter. Adrian got connected to her because of the suggestion said by Tony. At the end of life Tony understood that it was already too late to change anything in the life.

      1. If Veronica’s mother is the missing mother of Adrian, then every piece of the puzzle fits–and the point of the title and the earlier philosophical discussions of the boys make perfect sense. Tony can’t tell that the reader that particular fact, since Tony has no idea. I’d welcome a discussion, if anyone cares to address it from that standpoint. I’ve thought long and hard about this, and don’t mind at all being shown where I’ve gone wrong.

    2. Aileen, I would say that right to the very end Tony still didn’t get it. He assumes the younger Adrian is the son of Adrian, I’m not so sure. Tony’s memory is unreliable and as Veronica says he never got it and still doesn’t get it. Tony just doesn’t get who the father is.

    3. I would love to hear any answers you got to this. I have the same questions and want some clarifications. Can you email me the explanations you received?

      1. I think the child was Adrians and veronicas but bc she was unwed her mother had to raise the child as her own. I don’t believe Adrian would have slept with veronicas mother

  12. SPOILER ALERT: Aileen, my recollection is that Tony understood in the end that the disabled man was the son of Veronica’s mother and Adrian – whereas he had previously presumed him to be Veronica and Adrian’s son.

  13. Very interesting discussion. I read the book the other day as part of an attempt to read most of the Booker longlist before the shortlist is announced. Having read two of the others in full, and two in part, I finally felt, with the Barnes, that I had come upon something in a bit of a different league. I agree that the cover, and particularly the black-edged pages, serve as a subliminal memento mori; however, I am less inclined to go straight for the word ‘death’, and prefer instead the more fluid ‘finality’. There is a tone of finality about several of the relationships in the book that does not come from the second party actually having died. One has the sense that there is no way back – or forward – for Tony with either of the two main female characters, though both still live. Even the diary, which may or may not have been destroyed, would be useless to him by the end if he did manage to read it. I’m not entirely convinced either that the character’s advancing age and own intimation of mortality has much to do with it ultimately. One certainly doesn’t have to be of an advanced age to ‘get’ what the book is about. In fact, all one has to have been is thoughtless and lacking in imaginative empathy at some stage in the past. The centre of one’s own universe, in short. In short, pretty much anyone. One would hope that sometime long before your sixties the realisation might have dawned that you might not always have got things right. In other words, it’s more a matter of character (in the sense of personality) than age.

    I don’t much care for professional reviews generally (preferring this sort of discussion forum) and haven’t read the one in The New Statesman that Max alludes to, but I wasn’t particularly aware of authorial intervention as I read. If others discerned something of the ‘making it obvious’ sort, perhaps this might be attributed to the voice of a narrator for whom everything has to be spelled out before he can actually grasp it? And on that note, I disagree with Veronica. I think Tony does finally ‘get it’, and not just the obvious. The ‘great unrest’ of the final line points to this. Or maybe it’s just that, though I’m not yet aged and decrepit, I have written a few of those letters in my time . . .

  14. SPOILER ALERT! I’m afraid I just didn’t “get” the ending. I figured it out that Adrian and the mother must have had a relationship which produced the disabled son but that seems so improbable! Why would she have left the diary to Tony ..and the money “blood money”? His only responsibility is that he suggested that Adrian contact the mother about Veronica whom he took to be unbalanced because of some unspecified hurt in her past. How does that make Tony responsible for anything? Why did Veronica treat Tony in such a dismissive way?
    Sorry it just didn’t ring true for me…although I loved the development of the novel I did not like the conclusion.

    1. SPOILER WARNING: I think the point is that Tony has erased from his memory (remember the history lessons?) that he also had sex with Veronica’s mother (remember her gesture and the broken egg?) The child is of course Adrian’s…or is it?

  15. I have been planning to read this ever since I spotted it on the Booker longlist. Thanks for the review! I’m with Julian Barnes when it comes to not being serious about being serious. That really drives me crazy.

  16. There are some interesting comments on the questions above on the Man Booker Prize forum, from poster ‘JJ’. It’s hard to link to that site because of the format – here’s the link at time of writing, but I expect it’ll not work for long – so I’ll quote the relevant passages here:

    Tony’s guilt stems from his letter’s advice for Adrian to consult with Veronica’s Mother (Susan), who had already acted in a ‘mysterious’ way when Tony first met her: warning about Veronica and smiling as if they had a secret between them. Tony now feels that he flicked the first domino (accumulation/responsibility) towards the suicide. Adrian attempts to formalise responsibility: a2 + v + a1 x s = b? …. Tony plus Veronica plus Adrian multiplied by Susan equals a baby? His diary entry ends, “So, for instance, if Tony …’ The suggestion to my mind is that it was likely to continue … ‘had not suggested me taking advice from her Mother’ etc.

    The ‘blood money’ …. Susan, sparked by Tony, had the direct influence on Adrian’s suicide (“what was now the truth about Adrian’ … ‘He didn’t grandly refuse an existential gift; he was afraid of the pram in the hall.’) Susan wanted Tony to know Adrian’s last few months had been happy. Perhaps Susan felt Tony would have blamed himself and left him the diary so he would know the full truth; the money, ostensibly for the way the family had treated him, a gesture for her role in Adrian’s death – and thus her role in Tony’s guilt.

    The ambiguity as to why he was left the money and diary is necessary for the plot as it spurs Tony on to find out what has happened. Without the diary, the full reasons cannot be ascertained. Veronica wanted Tony to see the son as a way of saying, this was your creation: you cursed our child in your letter and this is the result. Tony doesn’t believe in curses, but again can’t help but feel he is in some way responsible.

    Thanks for the very helpful points.
    However I am still very skeptical whether anyone in Tony’s situation would ever blame himself in any way for simply suggesting to Adrian that he contact Veronica’s mother. Not many people would possibly foresee that this might lead to a relationship between the young man and her mother, let alone that the relationship might lead to a pregnancy.
    If the child had been Adrian’s and Veronica’s then Tony’s guilt would make much more sense, given the curses in Tony’s awful letter.
    I think that would have made for a more credible ending and would have explained Veronica’s coldness towards Tony.
    The actual ending seems contrived.

  18. I must say I rather agree with Wendy. Veronica’s attitude is hard to fathom. The “you don’t get it” line is odd as how on earth could he “get it” without it being explained to him. The supporting cast in general were all a little undeveloped but I suppose that is inevitable in such a
    short novel.

    I did however find it thought provoking and enjoyable and light years ahead of Snowdrops which is the other shortlisted novel I’ve read; the inclusion of which is inexplicable.

  19. It seems rather a clever novel. But I was not convinced by the narrator. I found him so arid that I didn’t really care about his so called relationship with Veronica. I wasn’t convinced that he wouldn’t have probed Veronica’s accusation that he didn’t get it further. Her petulant and perverse obstinacy in not elucidating her remark made the plot turn all the more creaky. For me the book’s interest lay in why the narrator should have so overvalued his friend. But the Barne’s lack of any emotional range told me I would not be rewarded with any subtle psychological insights, instead dry epistemology. An educated, Englishman’s book. I was glad to get back to a passionate Jewish novel, Saul Bellow’s Herzog.

  20. I enjoyed this novel and it is the first Julian Barnes for me. I did not like Tony. At all. I found him to be deeply self obsessed – to the point that he missed the most obvious of life’s emotional connections. He reminded me of that great line – enough talk about me. Lets talk about you. what do you think about me. His only interest in anyone outside himself (including his wife and daughter) is what they think of him and he never slides out of this self obsession.
    Having said that, I really enjoyed the novella. I think Julian Barnes has created a very believable character here and that he was able to call forth empathy from me was very well done. Above all, i thought this was beautifully written. The sentence structure is a pleasure to read and his uncomplicated way with words refreshing.
    I was on a roller coaster emotionally, but i did enjoy the novel.

  21. It seems to me an important book–and its technique extremely useful, in its elastic evocations of memory, to a writer (me) contemplating with some fear a fiction project centered on an unpublished book dictated 40 years ago by my father.

    As to the ending [SPOILER AGAIN], the device of the diary becomes next to meaningless as Tony realizes that Adrian’s life could not and should not be as important as getting matters straight in his own life. Yet ironically nothing can be got straight–life is just life, and anyway there is no possibility of either the reader or Tony to “get” the full story. It could as easily have been a mating between Adrian and his unknown half-sister that produced the damaged child as Veronica’s aging mother, despite Tony’s assurances that he now understands all. For why would we assume that Tony (or we) would figure things out? We want to, of course–we ardently want to, and I am still obsessively trying to put pieces of the puzzle together. But there’s that title, with its double or triple meanings, one of which might be “the rationality of an ending,” or even “the justifiability of an ending,” (not to mention “the illusion of”), which reflects on fictional technique itself. Even though the book demands a definite resolution of the mystery, and the human readers and characters crave a sensible ending, there is every reason on earth given within the covers of Barnes’s book that we shouldn’t believe in any particular one. Is this a cop-out by the author, a rather juvenile trick? Could well be. Why bother with any mystery at all if there’s to be no knowable answer? It’s all very literary and annoying. And yet, given what we know about those men as boys, and about Tony’s life, it’s apt. Everything, even the story-line of our own lives, is conjectural. Why not?

    1. I find I didn’t go nearly far enough in my first response on this site to Julian Barnes’s novel. I turns out I have a lot more to say, and I hope someone out there will bear with me, because I’m quite passionate about this book. I haven’t been this involved, both emotionally and in terms of being prompted to apply my brain to the seemingly impenetrable mystery at the core of a piece of writing, since I was a graduate student in literature trying to cope with John Barth. “The Sense of an Ending” is far more than a clever literary student’s tricky novel, as it first appeared to me. It has the power to change what you read and how, and even how you might think about your own life’s history.

      It is a book that asks a great deal of the reader. One must be prepared to become a collaborator of sorts–not of the narrator, but of the brilliant, clear-headed Adrian–and, if it’s not too much to claim, of Mr. Barnes himself.

      That collaboration bit is necessary, and I don’t want to take that away from anyone, so instead of spell out what I think I know, I’d like to offer the following advice to the baffled or annoyed reader:

      Take to heart the discussion about the shooting of Archduke Ferdinand and the start of WWI, and spend lots of time considering and rereading the fragment of Adrian’s diary.

      Consider the word “sense.”

      Spend lots of time trying to imagine the tragic off-stage action which results in the birth of the damaged child and Adrian’s death. Try to plug the holes in logic left by Tony’s conclusion that Veronica’s mother gave birth to the brain-damaged child. Reread the older Adrian’s diary fragment (yes, again!) and think of Oedipus putting out his eyes. Then think of the likelihood of Adrian traveling down to Chislehurst with the girl he has said he’s in love with and promptly having sex with the girl’s mother. And of the alternative possibility of Adrian traveling to meet the family at Chislehurst with the girl he’s in love with and who is already pregnant by him, and there discovering that the mother of his girlfriend is his own missing mother. Wonder if Sarah might have taken responsibility for the child, thus freeing the young people to pursue their lives away from the terrible taint of incest and its consequences. And how a man’s mother would as a matter of course inherit her dead son’s diary!

      Think about how none of the people involved in such a tragedy could ever be said to be untainted or free.

      Think of how Tony will never know that he, in his desire to remain only partially involved even in his own life, might have prevented the tragedy if he were a different kind of person. Of how ignorant he is likely to always remain of the possibility that he was the essential causal link, though not the literal cause, of that tragedy (just as the assassin of Archduke Ferdinand brought about, but was not the cause of, the Great War that destroyed so much of Europe and slaughtered England’s best and brightest young men). And that we, the readers, can’t have this revealed directly to us by a narrator who doesn’t know anything about it and who is not likely to ever “get” it, no matter what he claims, although he is in fact a scrupulous and quite lovable narrator trying to be open and honest. But who nevertheless settles for an unsatisfactory explanation of the strange events of his former friends because almost any explanation provides an ending, or the ‘sense’ of an ending, even when it sheds no light or insight into life or history as it actually unfolded–-and lets him off the hook, to boot!

      Once the hard work has been done and the reader has thought this whole work through, then–POW!–this small book has the power to shake your understanding of how fiction and history and the narrative of our own lives work.

      Might not such a book deserve a major literary prize?

      1. I love the theory that Susan is both Veronica and adrian snr’s mother and it kept me awake last night! However, re-reading doesn’t stack up as Veronica and Adrian are the same age and brother jack is older.

  22. I am very surprised that this very slim novella was considered good enough to win the Booker.
    Ambiguity in an ending is really nothing new. The first time I encountered a memorable enigmatic ending (that drove me mad trying to figure it out) was in Fowles “The Magus”.Throughout that novel the “truth” is uncovered in several layers…and there are always deeper layers until it finally dissolves into unresolvable ambiguity.
    The Magus is a much finer novel than the Barnes one which seemed to me like a first draft of a novel that really needed to be fleshed out.

  23. It wouldn’t have been my choice for the Booker of all the eligible novels published in the last year, Wendy, but I thought it was very good and I’ve no complaints about it topping the poll against the other shortlisted books.

    As to it being a first draft needing fleshed out, Barnes said (and I think KevinfromCanada said this too previously) that you really need to read it twice to get everything from it. I was tempted to do that but by the time I get around to it, I’ll probably have forgotten everything from first time around.

    Someone else also suggested that it read like something Barnes had written some time ago and only recently decided to publish – references to Friends Reunited (rather than Facebook) date it, for example. There’s also an odd bit about a song called ‘Every Day is Sunday’, which reads almost as though Barnes is unaware of the Morrissey song of almost exactly the same title. I’m sure Barnes’s editor at Cape, who I believe is a youthful chap, would have put him right on these points, so perhaps they were deliberate.

  24. I did say that, John. Many things (such as the details around the students speculating, without coming up with much, on the suicide early in the book) come into sharper focus on the second read.

    I also wondered whether “older” readers might find the novel more accessible than younger ones (I stress that’s a possibility, not necessarily a probability). Those who are frustrated by the ambiguity and uncertainty of elements of the plot may not have yet reached the stage in life where they are looking back at events in their youth and trying to put some order to them — and discovering that they can’t fit all the pieces together because they don’t have all the pieces. Those of us who have reached that stage and experienced similar frustrations understand Tony’s uncertainty only too well — that’s why it is such a fine novel.

  25. Thanks Kevin. At the risk of expanding this thread into a general Booker discussion, there’s a very good piece here by Gaby Wood, head of books at the Daily Telegraph and one of this year’s judges, reporting the judging action from behind the scenes.

    Two points are immediately revealing. Wood reports that one judge said, “Just writing wonderfully isn’t enough.” Yet what is any book, of any style or genre, but pages and pages of writing? This comment suggests a basic lack of understanding that every book is defined by its language – which may be poetic, stark, plain, complex or anything else – whereas this judge seems to feel that ‘writing’, or perhaps style, is something sprinkled on top of an almost-finished book.

    The other point is the reference – almost a parenthesis, but slipped in like a stiletto – that the chair of the judges used her Kindle to read the books to her in her car. Yes, you read that right. Here is what the Kindle text-to-speech function sounds like. I wonder which books she listened to like this, and whether they made the cut?

    1. John – I have used my Kindle to listen to books but I don’t use the text- to -speech function on Kindle. Instead I download audio books from Audible.Com, a vastly different experience. Invariably I have found that use of those audio books has enriched my experience of the novel.

      I am in North America and I am not sure whether it is possible in England to download audio books in this way. When I was there I noted some differences – including the fact that it was not possible (as it is here) to gift a particular book to another Kindle user.
      It would be interesting to find out whether the judge used an audio book or just the text to speech function.

      1. Wendy: I’d wager it was the text-to-speech function. The majority of the Booker submissions are proofs (paper or electronic) that are not yet released. Note that they were “reading” and discussing Book 110 (Barnes) at their June meeting — it wasn’t released until Aug. 4.

  26. Thanks for that link to Wood’s piece, which is one of the better of the seemingly inevitable post-Booker judge’s essays that seem to be de rigeur every year. I agree with your observations and would add a couple of others.

    My impression when I was half way through reading the list that this jury put together its longlist through a series of preliminary “heats” based on category (I wrongly said “genre’ intitially — it was broader than the conventional meaning of that word) — seems to have been right. I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing (some sorting mechanism has to be in place to reduce 138 to 13) but I think it reflects the plot bias of this year’s jury.

    I’m extrapolating here, but I can’t help but think the arrival of the Barnes in June to near-universal acclaim from the jury led to some sloppiness (in the form of choice-trading, moving “worthy” but obvious non-winners forward, dumping “literary” titles that wouldn’t beat Barnes, etc.) in putting together both the long and short lists. Again, this confirmed an impression that the jury at an early stage had a few books in mind and was quite comfortable with filling out the rest of the list with choices based on idosyncratic personal taste or agenda rather than worth.

    Finally, a personal note. One of my favorites this year would have been Adam Mars-Jones’ Cedilla. I can’t help but wonder if, I had been a judge when that 733-page tome arrived as book 68 of 138 (or whatever its number was), I would have given it a fair read. I suspect at that point (it would have been less than half way through given Cedilla’s early publication date) I too would have been biased to a book that “zips right along”.

  27. Yes I noted the ‘categories’ thing too, Kevin. Another point that occurred was system, which Wood indicates was directed by Ion Trewin, to indicate each of the judges’ favourites. Using a top ten is not, I think, a good way of doing it if it means that those are the only books considered for longlisting. For example a book might have been number 11, 12 or 13 on every judge’s list – meaning it was in the top 10% of the submissions for them, and they all liked it, but it wouldn’t be considered. I think this was the system used by Michael Portillo as chair in 2008, so perhaps Trewin has adopted it from him. (Or perhaps it was Trewin’s idea in the first place.)

    Much better, I think, was a system used by Malcolm Bradbury as chairman: he had everyone rank the books A, B, C or D. Any books which got only C or D ratings from the judges were dismissed without discussion: all the books which got two or more A or B ratings were discussed and considered. That means books which every juror gave a B to can still get on the longlist, and as a judge pointed out in the perennially entertaining Guardian piece about judging the Booker, if a book gets onto the longlist or shortlist, so unpredictable are the next steps, that literally any of them could go on to win the prize.

  28. Wood’s column indicates the value of the Bradbury approach — she mentions that in her list of 10 for the longlist she had at least a couple of either/or choices and would obviously have advanced the “or” one if other judges liked it. Also, if you are picking a list of 13 why would you restrict each list to 10 — surely it would make more sense, if your are using that system, to ask each for, say, 20 legitimate possiblities and then begin the elimination process from there.

    1. Well it depends on the level of brain damage. If it is severe then of course it is a tragedy. How else to describe a lifetime of caring for an seriously impaired individual or else suffering the pangs of guilt for putting the child in a facility?
      What sort of cockamamie political correctness describes this devastating blow as anything other than a tragedy?

      1. If you had any close experience of children or young adults with brain damage, you would realise that there is another world out there where it isn’t a tragedy at all – difficult maybe, but no, not at all a tragedy. the tragedy is the narrow mindedness of other people, and the inability to think outside the box – which is exactly what makes the lives of those with brain damage difficult – . and this is not politically correct talk, it is the talk of someone who does live in that ‘other world’ and knows the people in it quite intimately.
        the sadness is that the largely middle class attitudes which reject ‘difference’ and perpetuate this idea of normality which shuts difference out, is largely suppported by the media, novelists etc. – by this novelist juian barnes, but also by others in our culture and yes, throughout our history – but that doesn’t make it right.

    2. If the subject is the impaired son in Julian Barnes’s novel, then the tragedy of a child born with brain damage is not the simple matter of how our societies regard impaired children. The existence of that quite sweetly portrayed young man in the book points to the larger issue of contingency, which the first Adrian addressed as a student and later in his diary. It is the unknown and unknowable contingencies represented by the son that lead Adrian to commit suicide in order to remove himself from the chain of causality (i.e., life) that may unknowingly inflict suffering on others.

      1. i agree that the portrayal of the son was not too negative, but if what you have explained is the reason he committed suicide, does that make him irresponsible as a human being and unable to take on the mantel of being human and having to cope with whatever life throws at you? which seems quite cowardly of him. i accept your explanation, but suppose that what i object to is the implicit assumption in the novel (i think) that he had a good reason to bow out because after all who would want to face up to something so terrible and tragic – that the birth of such a child somehow exonerated him and we would all as readers sympathise with that. maybe.

    3. Elise, when you say ” what i object to is the implicit assumption in the novel that he had a good reason to bow out because after all who would want to face up to something so terrible and tragic – that the birth of such a child somehow exonerated him and we would all as readers sympathise with that,” you’re obviously right as far as life itself goes, or if this were a typical psychological novel under discussion. It’s my sense that Barnes has written a philosophical book, not a psychological one, so we can’t just approach it with our normal human (nurturing) reactions. I think he wants us to consider human history and how we don’t account for “accidents” in the shaping of history, even our own personal history, because we can’t know everything; but how we give a shape to it anyway, and how that shape may be completely mistaken. The important thing in that case, then, isn’t the child himself. Adrian likely never even knew that the child was born disabled, but may only just have found out, after meeting Veronica’s mother, that he and Veronica were brother and sister. That is certainly one way to understand this book. And a book has to be judged in the terms the author lays out, not by any absolute standard of morality. So I think the sympathy we are asked to feel is for the tragedy of Adrian and Veronica and Veronica”s mother’s lives at the point where they all intersected like Oedipus and his father on the road to Thebes.

      1. I love the theory that Susan is both Veronica and adrian snr’s mother and it kept me awake last night! However, re-reading doesn’t stack up as Veronica and Adrian are the same age and brother jack is older. Adrians mother lived with him until he was 4.

  29. Just to muddy waters further – was Mr Ford Veronica’s father? On p.26, Tony questions how the drunk, red faced gross man could have fathered such an elfin daughter?

    1. Since Veronica’s brother is older than she, and is presumably the son of both Mr. and Mrs. Ford, then Veronica can be assumed to be the daughter of both as well. I would take the observation you cite as just an observation about the usual genetic differences within a family, and underscoring Tony’s affinity for cultured people over “manly” type of men–but it does raise the question of what the artistic Mrs. Ford saw in Mr. Ford in the first place.

      1. Well, Emsie, I don’t know about you but I know families where the first son is the father’s but the next child isn’t – a legacy perhaps of the old 18th century fair deal between spouses where there is something to inherit.

  30. Your explanation makes sense, Lamorna. Here in the US, this sort of thing would not be common at all. I do think, though, that in terms of the elusive explanation for the ending of Julian Barnes’s book, that Veronica’s paternity is not a necessary question. It’s her MOTHER that holds the key–as well as the diary.

  31. Well, yes, Mr Reviewer: Barnes does have death hover in the
    background of this dry little novel — but I’d have to call it ‘death
    by boredom.’
    The characters are NOT interesting; one is not sympathetic with
    them, least of all the tale-teller, and what kind of a neurotic prick-
    teaser was Veronica, anyway: her own mother issues a warning
    to her gentleman caller. These are not the people I want in
    my study, as I sit in my green velvet linen chair reading, I had
    hoped, something with ‘class’ and real literary value. I have learnt
    my lesson; one does not, ever, look to Julien Barnes for such.
    Greetings from Santa Fe, New Mexico. (Ref. to Emsie above, V.’s
    paternity is a bit ho-hum for me; it makes no real difference, and
    there is nothing like introducing something like that in the final
    pages — very naughty because it’s ineffective and raises more
    questions than it answers. I sense that Barnes was simply out
    to write something that might sell. We used to call that: pot-boiler.)

    1. I must open with an apology to all those who love this book and the author but I must have my say.

      When it boils down to it this novel is pretentious and literary guff. I didn’t like this novel from the kick off -the school boys just didn’t ring true- and by the time we got to Adrian’s pretentious mathematical equation I was gritting my teeth to get through the rest. I guessed the baby thing (all the signs were laid down in neon), and yet despite that the ending was a muddle. And the biggest of all problems was that Tony, by his very nature (as so carefully laid out through the novel) was not the type of character who would have given any of the things that happened in his life much of a second thought. That was why he was ‘that type’ of character. You can’t create a character that is one way and then make him think in another, more literary, way. It doesn’t work. He doesn’t work. I also disliked very much the amateur (yes amateur psychobabble. If we had to have it couldn’t we have had through dialogue? Tony’s mind being stimulated into action by other more interesting chararcters? That might have been more realistic. As it is he just isn’t the sort to stimulate these musings all by himself.) As a reader I just didn’t know who this Tony character was, I didn’t recognise him. He wasn’t natural. I felt much the same about his ex wife come to think of it. She missed the natural mark by a long stretch. One minute she’s having an extra marital affair and leaving Tony for another man, the next she’s painted as the dullest, safest, most loyal and dependabale person on earth. Eh? I thought, despite the author’s dismissal of her, that her character might have had something more to offer. Veronica was obnoxious in every way and I couldn’t imagine any self respecting human being enduring her company for more than five minutes, nor her family either. And back to my opener, the school boys didn’t ring true.

      I did also ponder for one almost exciting moment if Tony had had sex with Veronica’s mother but then thought, no, he couldn’t possibly have because the author has been at pains to detail how dull and safe Tony’s life is so how could he have sex with Veronica’s mother, and if he had by some miracle had sex with her, given how dull and safe the rest of his life had been how could he possibly have forgotten! No I’m sorry but I just don’t accept this is a novel that works much less a classic. Its a farily easy going harmless read and that’s about it. It didn’t help that I’d just finished a Kafka before reading it. If I come across as harsh- apologies. I do appreciate people love this novel. I just can’t understand it myself.

  32. Emsie (in Los Angeles) wishes to respectfully disagree. This book, I assure you, goes deep, whether or not the characters are sympathetic. It’s about history and memory–and pertains directly to fiction writing itself. Might I urge you to take a brief look at Frank Kermode’s “The Sense of an Ending” (or any online summary of it) to see what this little book’s subject concerns itself with. I know, I know, different strokes and all that. But this is really worth a second look, Jim.

  33. My take on “Blood Money” is that the sum was given to Susan for an abortion by Adrian. Since Susan didn’t have an abortion due to complication, or looked forward to having a child on her own volition, the rightful owner of the sum and diary was the closest friend of Adrian. Remember Susan’s horizontal gesture!

  34. I just finished reading “.. ..ending” and am so thankful for your site. I almost threw the book across the room when I finished. (No, I did not read it on a Kindle) but instead,- I slammed it shut in fury. Yes, I loved most the writing, and stayed with it reading it in one sitting, but felt manipulated by the author. Too much left out. Veronica’s history. Her family’s history. Her mother’s interaction and the $500. so many years later over one weekend and a callow “kid’s” letter? I can’t buy it. Nor can I buy Adrian’s suicide. Too easy. Way too easy. That said, thank you John Self and all your posters.

  35. Adrian’s suicide should be remorse (I can’t think of any other reason), but why? Is it because he had an affair/married his girlfriend’s mother? Is it because, the baby is mentally challenged? or if he considered the baby’s condition to be results of his supposed sin? Then again why did Veronica’s mother leave money to Tony in the first place and why 500? This book has left me with too many questions. As much as I liked Tony’s character potrayal and dissection, the end seems to the title of the book – The sense of an ending, but not really one. Booker Prize, seriously?

  36. One of the things to admire in this novella is the pared down nature of the writing. Every word counts and there is nothing included which is extraneous to the central theme.
    (The following paragraph may contain spoilers) As to the possible answers to the questions raised in this thread: the mathematical solution referred to on page 14, ‘he,(Robson) being about to cause an increase of one in the human population, had decided it was his ethical duty to keep the planet’s numbers constant.’ may supply a reason for Adrian’s suicide in adition to his stated belief that as we don’t ask to be born, so we may choose to end our lives. Suicide and Robson’s suicide in particular preoccupied Adrian from early in the story. His use of it in class as an example to explain the unreliability of history sums up Barnes entire theme, i.e., the dependance of history on the imperfections of memory and the inadequacies of documentation, as well as the personal baggage of the historian. The reliability of Tony Webster’s account, and the entire story, are beset by all of these difficulties. Tony frequently acknowledges his imperfect memory, he possesses only a fragment of Adrian’s diary and Barnes ensures that we are well aware of Tony’s personal baggage. So there can only be the sense of an ending, and great unrest in the mind of the reader at the accumulation of responsibility. We are left with the unanswerable question: is Tony the equivalent of the Serbian who may have triggered off WWI? Is Tony the cause of all the tragedy?

  37. I so appreciate your response, Fionnuala. I’ve been feeling rather isolated on the issues involved in this important book, and my friends have been no help at all, preferring to put it aside with questions unanswered and move on to the next book. (Indeed, I have the impression that the critics have done the same.) To my mind, you are well justified in asking questions about Tony being the equivalent of the Serbian who shot the archduke and the possibility that Tony was the cause of the tragedy. Perhaps at least Tony might have prevented it. Adrian, a fully aware and philosophical being, removed himself from the chain of causality, but alas, too late. But Tony?

    1. Emsie, you are indeed right about the importance of the issues raised in this unusual piece of fiction. To concentrate on the mysteries behind the characters’ motives, as many readers seem to have done, is to miss the point. This is simply about
      history and how memory and subjectivity distort it. As to Tony’s role in the events of the story, Barnes allows that he may have acted as a trigger (the vindictive letter) just as the Serbian gunman did, but he also allows that those events might have happened anyway. There were other participants involved, with their own motives, just as in WWI. From the few telling details we are given about Sarah, we know she was quite capable of seducing Adrian without any help from Tony. Similarly with Veronica; the portrait Barnes paints of her doesn’t incline us to think that she could have kept such a metaphysical soul as Adrian rooted on this earth for long. As usual with Tony, it is what he didn’t do that wreaks most havoc: by not staying with Veronica, the events were allowed to happen. We are left to puzzle the conundrum of cause and effect, the history that shapes history.

      1. I have just realised, Emsie that you more or less came to all these conclusions earlier in this thread (it has probably reached its sell by date at this stage). I came late to the discussion, having read the book only recently and I have been eager to discuss it with someone ever since. That’s what led me to the excellent Asylum review and I’m afraid I only read a few of the responses, some of which seemed to me to have missed the point of the book.
        I found your Oedipus theory interesting too, but not essential to the understanding of Barnes’ theme. But it does fit with my conclusion, i.e. the huge variety of possible histories which shape history.

      2. “We are left to puzzle the conundrum of cause and effect, the history that shapes history.” Fionnuala

        Brilliant. I agree. And in that case…Mr. Barnes is a success.

        You two! (Fionnuala & Emsie) Thank you for your insights into this book. Very satisfying, (even though I am joining your discussion so late) to have cohorts in these theories and questions but in the end admiring this novel.

  38. I’m greatly pleased to have found you, Fionnuala. If you should ever have other novels to recommend, I’d take your suggestions seriously. Have you read W. G. Sebald, by any chance? The Emigrants or Austerlitz?

  39. There’s a list of what I’ve read in the last year at the following address:

    Yes, I have read both those titles by Sebald whose writing I admire very much. And of course Barnes’ themes, i.e. history and memory examined through the medium of fiction were exactly what Sebald was most concerned with. Although it is difficult to describe his work as fiction, isn’t it?

  40. So glad to find this because this book really sticks with you! The questions!
    I don’t hear anyone talking about how strange it is that the sleeping with the mother possibility was enabled by the family with Tony. What about the fact that Veronica and Jack and father disappeared leaving Tony with the mother seemingly on purpose? The mother was ready and waiting saying that Veronica thought he would like a ‘lie in’. Tony balked at this, he was not the type to ‘lie in’. Was this family complicit in some weird sex thing that the mother had going on? It seems to me that Veronica was delivering Tony to her mother to sleep with but they didn’t – it can’t always be easy these set ups and did Veronica warm up to him after because he didn’t? She claimed him as her own then? She was more affectionate because he didn’t sleep with her mother? What was the comment to Jack “Will he do?” in the game, for Mom? Did she deliver Adrian to the mother as well? This time the mother did sleep with the ‘delivery’ and Adrian, not having parents or role models, learned at school how one deals with such a situation…. pregnant girlfriend…by suicide. The reason the book gives for the brain damaged child is that the mother is old. So perhaps Veronica, weird and strange as she was, was part of this pact with her family. I agree, the ‘getting it’ was irritating – what was Tony to ‘get’?
    Thoughts about the delivery theory?

  41. what is the most proper topic for “the sense of an ending” that i can write on my essay, what theory can be applied with this novel?

    1. Think about it yourself and come to your own conclusions. What’s the point in just doing what someone else tells you?
      That makes the whole exercise pointless. Sheesh!

    2. Hi, MKS. I and a few others have written on this site about how to understand The Sense of an Ending. If you’re in a rush–and you sound as if you are–look for postings by “Emsie” and also check out the responses to those postings. I think among several of us we pretty well covered what you’ll need and still left you with a bit of the puzzle to go over in your mind.

      1. Hi Emsie,

        I’ve read your comments and I think your theory is interesting, but rereading about Adrian’s past you see that ‘His mother had walked out years before, leaving his dad to cope with Adrian and his sister.”

        The ages of Jack, Adrian, and Veronica make it impossible for Sarah to be both their parents…unless she somehow juggled back and forth between both marriages.

        Although your theory does explain why Veronica would be so upset at Tony. I don’t understand how she could be so upset at him if Adrian had slept with her mom. It’s not like he was the one that had the sex.

      2. Sorry, aaronburr, to have taken so long to respond. Have finally gotten around to skimming The Sense of an Ending again to check on the question of Jack and Veronica’s ages. Jack is several years ahead of Adrian at Cambridge, and therefore older. But he is never referred to as Sarah’s son, only as Veronica’s brother–and thus could easily be her father’s son from an earlier marriage. Early on, Adrian makes clear that he never visited his mother at her home and knew nothing about her life, only met with her in London (a very unlikely but convenient bit of authorial trickery).

        I do think the case for Adrian and Veronica being the children of the same mother is too strong to doubt. No other explanation ties up all the loose ends. But am open to further discussion, as it’s an awful lot of fun.

  42. Aha! Aaron Burr is someone with my theory: Sarah is Adrian’s mother. Veronica and Jack had another mother. The others question why Adrian doesn’t want to find out more about his mother’s leaving his father
    to care for Adrian and his sister (mentioned once and not named).
    Oedipal stuff. Also when visiting Veronica’s home Tony notices
    that Veronica doesn’t look like her “mother”. Adrian#2 resembles
    Adrian#1 physically as noted by Tony. But his could come from
    the mother only…

    Strange farewell gesture when Tony is leaving Veronica’s home, the wave off the stomach, might indicate she (Sarah) was already pregnant
    with Adrian#2 who was given his name when he was born after the suicide. See the eggs/frying pan scene.

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