The Sense of an Ending
by Julian Barnes
This was far and away the most English book I’ve ever read in my life. Just…I mean, there’s just no way this book was written by anyone other than a Brit. An American could not write in this way.
It reminded me of Eddie Izzard’s description of American versus English movies–how there’s not even enough action in an English movie to eat popcorn. This was like the book version of that, for me.
That being said…I still liked it. The opening is such a good hook, and then throughout there are these wry, dry bits of humor that break the surface of an otherwise fairly placid narrative:
“Mr. Gunnel is a calm, gaunt man who doesn’t mind silence. After all, it costs his clients just as much as speech.”
“We shook hands in that awkward, elbow-high way that being seated imposes.”
There are also some great moments where his…”English-ness” makes for the best sort of wit:
“Yes, you can say it again: You poor sap. And did you still think her a virgin when she was rolling a condom on to your cock? In a strange way, you know, I did. I thought it might be one of those intuitive female skills I inevitably lacked. Well, perhaps it was.”
“Whiskey, I find, helps clarity of thought. And reduces pain. It has the additional virtue of making you drunk or, if taken in sufficient quantity, very drunk.”
Then there are moments where the writing is just. so. good. So unique and observant:
“Her own shelves held a lot of poetry, in volume and pamphlet form…I didn’t for a moment doubt that she had read them all, or that they were the right books to own. Further, they seemed to be an organic continuation of her mind and personality, whereas mine struck me as functionally separate, straining to describe a character I hoped to grow into.”
My favo(u)rite thread, though, was the continual contemplation of time and memory, in terms of reality versus fiction. Barnes plays a lot with the real versus the remembered, giving much food for thought:
“In my mind, this was the beginning of the end of our relationship. Or have I just remembered it this way to make it seem so, and to apportion blame? If asked in a court of law what happened and what was said, I could only attest to the words ‘heading,’ ‘stagnating,’ and ‘peaceable.’ …I would also swear to the truth of the biscuit tin; it was burgundy red, with the Queen’s smiling profile on it.”
“But you find yourself repeating, ‘They grow up so quickly, don’t they?’ when all you really mean is: time goes much faster for me nowadays.”
Or, to sum the book up in one quote:
“Someone once said that his favourite times in history were when things were collapsing, because that meant something new was being born. Does this make sense if we apply it to our individual lives? To die when something new is being born–even if that something new is our very own self? Because just as all political and historical change sooner or later disappoints, so does adulthood. So does life. Sometimes I think the purpose of life is to reconcile us to its eventual loss by wearing us down, by proving, however long it takes, that life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”
* * *
Except that the tight little knot that had been building a nest of anxiety, worry and fear in my chest finally cracked open last night. It spread wide, like a shield, and now I can deflect the things I don’t want or need to feel, while at the same time open my heart to let in the things I was afraid to feel. “Hope is a thing with feathers,” etc. (Emily Dickinson)
What I’m saying is that life is not all that bad. That my hope and happiness have returned, and I’m going to fight to hold on with all my might.