The Sense of an Ending
?by Julian Barnes
?Knopf, 163 pages, $23.95

You’re not the person you take yourself to be. That’s because the person you take yourself to be is a creature of narrative, and narratives are inevitably fabulous and fabricated, which is at least to say that they are opaque, partial, unreliable, and embroidered.

Chronicles, unlike narratives, can approach transparency and reliability. That’s because they’re modest, boring, and largely meaningless. They identify circumscribed events descriptively, and with a minimum of interpretation: friend committed suicide this month; I got married in November 1970; I received legacy in 2009; and so on. But chronicles aren’t stories. They don’t provide meaning”not, anyway, the kind of meaning you need in order to come to understand yourself as a certain kind of person. The question is not whether you’ll abandon telling, to yourself and others, the story of your life; the question is which stories you’ll tell and how aware you’ll let yourself be of their fabricated nature.

These are the themes of Julian Barnes’ latest novel, for which he was awarded the Man Booker Prize last October. Barnes’ recent work has been much concerned with aging, the prospect of death, and the fecund unreliability of memory.

In 2004, he published The Lemon Table , a collection of stories about people who know, because they are old, that they will soon die, and who under that pressure renarrate their pasts, often with remorse. In 2008, he published Nothing to Be Frightened Of , a book-length meditation on death, nonfictional in the sense that it is largely about himself, but fictional in the sense that in it he exhibits exactly the sense of autobiographical narrative I’ve described.

And his 2005 novel, Arthur and George , while a period piece (the Arthur of the title is Conan Doyle, and the book’s diction and register are largely Victorian), also treats the fluidity, uncertainty, and unavoidability of narrative in the face of death and other disasters. This concern with death and memory was evident even in Barnes’ early work: It received plangent treatment in Metroland , published in 1980 when Barnes was thirty-four.

Barnes’ new novel is short, elegant, and precise. Its protagonist (a hero to no one, not even himself) is Tony, an Englishman born some time in the 1940s. In its brief first part, Tony narrates his own unremarkable life, in a detached first-person voice. We read of his schooldays at an English public school, of his friends, and especially of Adrian, a brilliant and (to Tony) disconcertingly serious young man. He remembers his first real love affair, with Veronica, and his one weekend visit with her peculiar family. He describes, in a dispassionate but to the reader perceptibly angry tone, his difficulties about sex with Veronica, and their eventual breakup.

He tells of Veronica’s taking up with Adrian, and of Adrian’s suicide. There is a suicide note, left by Adrian for the coroner’s inquest, which gives a high-toned rationale for the suicide, of a kind that suggests Adrian has been reading too much Seneca. And that’s it: Tony’s life becomes humdrum (he marries, he divorces, he doesn’t remarry, he has a daughter who doesn’t like him much), his plans and projects and ambitions largely come to nothing, and he marks time, waiting for death, contentedly, a fussy bachelor who patches his old jeans and regularly descales his kettle.

Then something happens, an event both dramatic and enigmatic, whose narration opens the novel’s longer second part. Veronica’s mother, Sarah, dies and leaves Tony a small legacy of five hundred pounds together with two documents, one of which is missing from the letter the lawyer sends him.

He’d met Sarah only once, during that single weekend visit, and he can’t understand why she’s left him money and what the missing document might be. It turns out to be Adrian’s diary, and it’s missing because Veronica has it and won’t give it up. Tony’s voice, still in the first person but now more animated, chronicles in the remainder of the novel his attempts to sort things out.

I won’t tell you what he discovers: There are Dickensian revelations, altogether too contrived for my taste. But the point of these revelations isn’t their substance. It is that Tony’s telling of them entails a re-narration of his past, one that transforms it. Adrian didn’t commit suicide, Tony now thinks, as a philosophical decision; Veronica and Adrian’s affair wasn’t at all as he thought it was; his own affair with her is now seen differently, as one in which he had, in a way, loved and been loved rather than as one in which he’d been manipulated and mistreated; and, most strikingly, he discovers a letter he’d written to Adrian and Veronica on the occasion of his learning that they’d become lovers.

In Tony’s first telling of his life, that letter figures as something insignificant and perhaps clever. In his second telling, the letter is something horrible: full of hatred and anger, a scarifying gut-job on Veronica and (he now sees) evidence of how deeply he had loved her. It begins, Dear Adrian and Veronica (hello, Bitch, and welcome to this letter), and continues, I hope you get so involved that the mutual damage will be permanent .?. . [and that] when you break up, as you inevitably will, you are left with a lifetime of bitterness that will poison your subsequent relationships.

It gets worse from that point. It is a letter hard to atone for, and the contrast between Tony’s easy, half-forgetful treatment of it in his first life narration and his agonized contemplation of it in his second as revealing the kind of person he had been is one of the book’s principal instances of memory’s fungibility. The longer life goes on, Tony reflects, “the fewer those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but”mainly”to ourselves.

That, anyway, is true for pagans. For Christians (and Jews and Muslims) it’s different, not because our pasts are transparent to us”Barnes is abundantly and elegantly right that they are not, and Augustine, to name only one among a vast witness-cloud, thought the same”but because our resources for narrating them are different. The story of my past, as of yours whether you know it or not, is the story that Augustine tells in his Confessions . It is a story narrated not by us but rather by the Lord, which means that in order to narrate”interpret, understand, give meaning to”our pasts we, unlike Tony, don’t rely principally on memory or even what others have to say to us about ourselves.

We are responsive, rather, to the template, given scripturally and in tradition, of the shape of a human life. Ours fits that; that is its meaning, and in seeing that to be so, we see that we have been narrated, and that any narration we might offer is responsive and participatory.

For Tony (and, I suppose, for Barnes) that resource is not available, even if there is nostalgia for it. Barnes begins Nothing to Be Frightened Of with the sentence “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him. The first part of the sentence is true for Tony, if not the second; this means that the resources he has for self-narration are inadequate, and that is what the book is about.

There are many pleasures to be had from The Sense of an Ending . Prominent among them is delight in Barnes’ style. He writes an understated and dense prose, of a kind that often requires the reader to pause and consider the echoes. He has a perfect ear for period idiom: The England in which he grew up is close to the one in which I did, and so when he writes of schoolboy life in the fifties and sixties I feel the frisson of native understanding. He has Tony, as a teenager, imagining, with some pleasure, that a girl might reject him by calling him a pustular berk with the charisma of a plimsole. That might give American readers pause, but it’s exactly right, beautifully right. A world is conjured by it.

This is a clever and agonizing book about the human condition by a man of great intelligence and artistic ability. One of its repeated images is that of the Severn Bore, a tidal rush of water up the Bristol Channel on England’s west coast that reverses the river’s flow twice a day with a cresting wave traveling backward. Tony and Veronica and their friends go to see it one night, and that event is narrated twice in the novel, very differently each time, of course.

It is an image of surprise: The world isn’t usually like that, its quotidian direction shockingly reversed. But then again, the world is of course just like that, and the ending to The Sense of an Ending stresses it: What we can say about the shape of a life (if we are pagans) is just and only that there is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest.

Paul J. Griffiths is the Warren Professor of Catholic Theology at Duke University’s Divinity School.