Julian Barnes' Recursive Sense of Endings and Beginnings

"This was another of our fears: that Life wouldn't turn out to be like Literature."--The Sense of an Ending
UPDATE: Shortly after Julian Barnes (finally) won The 2011 Man Booker Prize in October, Eleanor Wachtel nabbed a rare in-depth interview with Barnes for her CBC Writers & Co. show. Their hour of relaxed literary chat includes revelations from Barnes on the ideas behind The Sense of an Ending and also some discussion of his previous books, particularly his nonfiction meditation on mortality, Nothing to be Frightened Of. The podcast is a great listen, though a little spoilery if you haven't read A Sense of an Ending yet. (If the main Writers & Co. page link to the Barnes podcast doesn't work, try going directly to the .mp3 link here.)

In The Sense of an Ending Julian Barnes establishes and disputes a man's reckoning of his own life in under 200 pages. The external layer of the novel consists of the ruminations of Tony Webster, a middle-aged English everyman, as he recalls his past 40 years with a comfortable blend of nostalgia and regret. Webster's memories are mildly piquant, and Barnes' prose boosts their vividness just enough to sustain the reader's interest, interrupted every twenty pages or so by a tick-tock musing on the nature of time and memory. Never mind, we are just ruminating along with Tony and his milquetoast confessions and revelations about friends and lovers from long ago. Very near the promised ending, a present-day discovery amplifies the tick-tock and forces Webster to re-assess the whole shebang in real time, and everything the reader has been told begins to wobble and demand re-interpretation. As I wrote in my review of The Sense of An Ending for Shelf Awareness, it's "a sneaky little hand grenade of a novel"--once the pin falls out, one is compelled to go back to the beginning of The Sense of An Ending to see how it was built, and to determine whose complacency has been exploded--ours or the narrator's?

A Novel in a Sextet
Barnes might have as easily titled his novel The Stealth of a Beginning. The opening page, which on first read appears harmlessly lyrical--a poetic sextet of liquid images--on second read reveals that it contains the entire DNA of the novel, yet even this knowledge will not give the ending away, because the ending is as much an interpretation as a refutation. The major of accomplishment of this slender novel is that it uses the actual elements of its own scenes to indict the glibness of anecdote.

Listen to Barnes Read the Beginning of His Ending
The Man Booker Prize Podcast Series has a recording of Barnes reading the beginning of The Sense of an Ending. It begins at Minute 4:40, after an introduction by Tom Sutcliffe of BBC Radio 4 and an endorsement by Gaby Wood, one of the Man Booker Prize judges. The excerpt read by Barnes is an unadorned, highly resonant piece of audio. If you listen to it after you read the book, it will give you chills as you pick up even more clues to the novel's denouement, but you can also listen to it before you read the book without fear of spoilage. (Readings by all the 2011 shortlist nominees are also available for download from the Man Booker Prize Podcast iTunes page.)


  1. If there is a book that you would want to just cling on, with your eye flaps not moving and your eyeballs petrified by the sheer cleverness of the author, this is the book to read. Every paragraph has a strange but welcoming obscurity to it, which makes a second read as good as reading a different book altogether. The days of careless mistakes that one could pass for have been put forward in a way that one feels the tingle of nostalgia framed with the question "What could have been!". A phased transition from juvenile carelessness to adult reciprocation, met with love, illicit sex, lies, betrayal, suicide, maths, and mysteries at frequent intervals, is something that one can relate to. And to top it all, the ending just steals the show.

  2. Hi Meera,
    I agree!
    Also, I'm very much looking forward to his memoir, LEVELS OF LIFE. It just published in the UK and will come out in the US in September (I'll probably review it for Shelf Awareness).
    Thanks for your comments.