Imagine an erudite episode of The Inbetweeners (where the boys were less concerned with knobs than with the correct classical music to listen to) by way of Philip Roth’s Everyman and you’ll have something of a handle on what to expect from Julian Barnes’ latest slight yet affecting novel.
Tony Webster is getting on in years. He is a retired divorcee who remains on speaking terms with his ex-wife and relatively good terms with his daughter (although his need to constantly reassure us that they are on good terms potentially puts the lie to that). A bequest from an old girlfriend’s mother sets off a chain of events that forces Tony to re-evaluate many of the events that had happened earlier in his life, specifically his friendship with a young man called Adrian Finn.
‘Adrian allowed himself to be absorbed into our group, without acknowledging that it was something he sought. Perhaps he didn’t. Nor did he alter his views to accord with ours.’
These views are fresh, to Tony’s mind, challenging the status quo, fearless in many respects (a pupil at their school kills himself and Adrian raises it as a philosophical point in a discussion with their history master – a discussion that draws ‘a perceptible intake of breath’ in the classroom, at leastways according to Tony’s ‘best memory of the exchange’).
Alongside keeping us up to date with his life (at the time of writing), odd lunches with his ex-wife Margaret, performing various DIY functions about the house, ruminating on memory and loss, we traipse our way through the events of the past: as Tony and Adrian and a couple of other friends make their way to their respective universities, try to keep up with one another (or rather each try to keep up with Adrian) and then take up with girls. For Tony, the girl in question is Veronica, a tough cookie if ever there was one, who very much called the shots on their relationship (or so it appeared to Tony and us).
It doesn’t work out between Tony and Veronica and, sometime later, she takes up with Adrian, to Tony’s apparent chagrin. A fall-out between them sunders the relationship and seemingly precipitates a tragedy that, years later, Tony is still seeking to parse (if indeed he ever does successfully parse it).
What raises the book above the norm, what makes of this small quotidian drama something quite special is, of course, Barnes himself. Without getting too hoity-toity, this is a drama from the pen of a master wordsmith – a master wordsmith who is busy ruminating on what it is to grow old and forget and misremember and dwell upon mistakes that can no longer be fixed. Tony writes:
…when you are young, you think you can predict the likely pains and bleaknesses that age might bring. You imagine yourself being lonely, divorced, widowed; children growing away from you, friends dying. You imagine the loss of status, the loss of desire – and desirability. You may go further and consider your approaching death, which, despite what company you may muster, can only be faced alone. But all of this is looking ahead. What you fail to do is look ahead and then imagine yourself looking back from that future point. Learning the new emotions that time brings. Discovering, for example, that as the witnesses to your life diminish, there is less corroboration, and therefore less certainty, as to what you are or have been.’
The Sense of an Ending felt, to this reader, like a wise book, full of the kind of sad wisdom the years bring:
‘Life isn’t just addition and subtraction. There’s also the accumulation, the multiplication, of loss, of failure.’
Any Cop?: Although Pulse, Barnes’ last book, a collection of short stories, did not quite set our world on fire, the opposite could be said of this. This is exactly the kind of book we feel Barnes should be writing – and if this proves to be his Everyman, the first of a small series of shorter novels ruminating on age, all the better.