Over the past few years, every time Julian Barnes has started a book it has dealt with endings. Nothing to be Frightened Of (2008) was, among other things, a frank and personal meditation on the fear of death brought about by the demise of his parents, while the pick of the short fictions in Pulse (2011) dealt with a grieving husband (Barnes lost his own wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh, in 2008). It is not hard to see why mortality, in its various guises, is now his thing.
The grim reaper pads all over his latest novel too. His presence, however, is not to demonstrate that death brings closure but the opposite: dying can not only leave a host of irresolutions behind but it is also sometimes only through death that one can discover the complications of a life.
But before death comes memory, and the memories here belong to Tony Webster, who we first meet as one of a close-knit trio of “book-hungry, sex-hungry, meritocratic, anarchistic” schoolboys. Into the school and into the group comes Adrian Finn, a boy of altogether higher intellectual mettle and one of those rare creatures that the teachers treat seriously.
In a reprise of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, the most pertinent exchanges are to do with the past and how to assess it. History, quotes Adrian portentously, “is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation”. In other words, it is mutable. It is a definition that shapes the book.
University splits the group up; Adrian goes to Cambridge to be brilliant, Tony goes to Bristol and gets a girlfriend. Veronica is a singularly earnest creature, contemptuous, curt and, more disconcertingly for Tony, someone who claims “it just doesn’t feel right” whenever his hands stray to unlicensed parts of her anatomy. The flaws between them are at their most obvious when Tony visits Veronica and her parents. Over the course of a humiliating weekend, Tony is variously ignored, patronised and excluded. There is no creeping along corridors in the night. They do have sex once, back at Bristol and post-break-up, and contact is seemingly terminally severed when Adrian writes to ask if he can take up with Veronica instead. Shortly afterwards, Adrian commits suicide, a philosophically argued decision to renounce life, “the gift bestowed without anyone asking for it”.
And that’s it for 40 years until Tony, a “peaceable” man with one failed marriage, one daughter and a quiet life behind him, receives a legacy from Veronica’s mother. The bequest includes Adrian’s diary, though how she came by it or why she left it to someone she met only once decades ago is something Tony cannot fathom. The diary, though, has been purloined by Veronica and she is in no hurry to pass it on.
So begins a tentative and prickly re-establishment of a broken link as Tony starts a patient campaign to retrieve the diary and calm Veronica who, at every advance, hisses and bristles. What this grudging shuffle offers Tony is a chance to rerun what happened with Veronica and corroborate his past. It stirs in him the desire “to go back to the beginning and change things ... make the blood flow backwards”, even if he knows it can’t be done.
Tony thinks he begins to understand the reasons for Veronica’s hostility when she presents him with the letter he wrote when Adrian told him of her change of affections. In phrases of vicious intemperance, he called down curses on his former best friend and former girlfriend, wishing them ill with Old Testament implacability. He doesn’t remember writing it but it seems as if his wishes were met.
It is here that Barnes is at his most supple. “You just don’t get it,” becomes Veronica’s spat refrain as Tony tries and fails to understand just what happened so long ago. The reader doesn’t get it either. Barnes hints and fleetingly directs but Tony’s floundering is ours too.
The path to revelation requires adroit handling. The mechanism of the novel is so intricate that one slip and the whole thing would spring apart. Barnes’s writing, though, is founded on precision as well as on the nuances of language. And the secret, when it finally arrives, is breathtakingly unexpected. Just as one explanation seems to become clear, a second arrives with the force of a slap. Early on, the schoolboy Tony expresses his fear “that Life wouldn’t turn out to be like Literature”. The tragedy for him, and for all the others in this tale of remorse and unexpected consequences, is that it does.
This novel, or really novella, has just made the Man Booker Prize longlist and its inclusion is absolutely merited (although one of the reasons given for the exclusion of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach in 2007 – with which The Sense of an Ending has many things in common – was that at 176 pages it was too short: Barnes’s is shorter). Its brevity, however, in no way compromises its intensity – every word has its part to play; with great but invisible skill Barnes squeezes into it not just a sense of the infinite complexity of the human heart but the damage the wrong permutations can cause when combined. It is perhaps his greatest achievement that, in his hands, the unknowable does not mean the implausible.
Michael Prodger is the art critic for Standpoint magazine
The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes, Jonathan Cape, RRP £12.99, 146 pages