The Sense of an Ending

By Tim Wynne-Jones

Before this fall, any literary type mentioning The Sense of an Ending was likely referring to Frank Kermode’s seminal text published in 1967 and considered a landmark in twentieth century critical thought. The publication of Julian Barnes’ novel of the same name and it’s subsequent winning of the 2011 Man Booker Prize will probably mean book people are referring to Barnes not Kermode, these days. But then the novel owes a lot to the book. You might even say it makes into fiction the theories that Kermode puts forward, and Barnes does so in 150 pages, which is pretty short for an adult novel, especially one winning such a prestigious prize.

I wasn’t a literary student and haven’t read a lot of critical thought, but Kermode’s ideas hit me pretty strongly as a young writer. To get the gist of his ideas, you could refer to the following essay, originally published in The Critical Quarterly, but now available on line: “New Ends for Old: Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending.”

Basically, Kermode talks about how fictions (including history) impose a pattern on time because we have this basic human need for sense and comfort which time as disorganized as it is, just doesn’t give us. Fiction, according to Kermode, is about the humanizing of time. We want a beginning, middle and ending; we want shape Story  —  something that means. Kermode says:

The clock’s ‘tick-tock’ I take to be a model of what we call a plot, an organisation which humanises time by giving it a form; and the interval between ‘tock’ and ‘tick’ represents purely successive, disorganised time of the sort we need to humanise. (p. 45).

I’m going to give a lecture on plot in July, in which I’ll follow up on this but right now I just want to say that, to my mind, Barnes’ novel speaks volumes to children’s writers, despite its slight size. It isn’t a novel intended for young readers. In fact, it perfectly fits my description of the difference between books for kids and adults: the former is all about getting a grip; the latter is about letting go. Tony, the protagonist in Barnes’ novel, has to let go of something he did in his youth. There are several quotes from the text that jumped out at me as having resonance for us, and the kinds of things we think about. None of the following quotes gives the story away.

On page 16. Teenaged Tony, Colin and Alex have been grilling their new friend Adrian about why his mother left his father. He doesn’t know and the narrator, Tony, questions that.

“In a novel, Adrian wouldn’t just have accepted things as they were put to him. What was the point of having a situation worthy of fiction if the protagonist didn’t behave as he would have done in a book? Adrian should have gone snooping, or saved up his pocket money and employed a private detective; perhaps all four of us should have gone off on a Quest to Discover the Truth. Or would that have been less like literature and too much like a kids’ story?”

By page 80, Tony is now in his sixties, and all the quotes are from that perspective.

“It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age: when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others.”

On page 82. “Though why should we expect age to mellow us? If it isn’t life’s business to reward merit, why should it be life’s business to give us warm, comfortable feelings towards its end? What possible evolutionary purpose could nostalgia serve?

On page 87.  “I’m sure psychologists have somewhere made a graph of intelligence measured against age. Not a graph of wisdom, pragmatism, organizational skill, tactical nous – those things which, over time, blue our understanding of the matter. But a graph of pure intelligence. And my guess is that it would show we most of us peak between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five.”

On page 93. “I remember a period in late adolescence when my mind would make itself drunk with images of adventurousness. This is how it will be when I grow up. I shall go there, do this, discover that, love her, and then her and her and her. I shall live as people in novels live and have lived. Which ones I was not sure, only that passion and danger, ecstasy and despair (but then more ecstasy) would be in attendance. However… who said that thing about the ‘littleness of life that art exaggerates’? There was a moment in my late twenties when I admitted that my adventurousness had long since petered out. I would never do those things adolescence had dreamt about. Instead, I mowed my lawn, I took holidays, I had my life.”

And on page 103. “Does character develop over time? In novels, of course it does: otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a story.”

Excerpts from The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, Jonathan Cape, London, 2011.


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2 responses to “The Sense of an Ending

  1. Can't wait to hear your lecture, Tim! And thank you for introducing me to Kermode. I'm a long-time groupie of Barnes, though, whom I've adored ever since FLAUBERT'S PARROT. It's been such fun to grow old, if not mellow, with him, which may explain why THE SENSE OF AN ENDING so resonates with this, er, "seasoned" reader.

  2. I recently finished Barnes's THE SENSE OF AN ENDING and immediately wanted to read it again to study it. With the addition of Kermode's thoughts on time and fiction it makes Barnes's book even richer. I've been thinking about time and structure a lot lately as I work through a first draft and this post inspires me to think about it more deeply. I look forward to ordering your lecture. Thank you!

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