Thursday, March 08, 2012

You may not want to read this if you haven't already read The Sense of an Ending

Last night I read Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending. Yes, the night before it went up against Donald Ray Pollock's The Devil All the Time in the Tournament of Books. I'd thought about letting February be a month of reading nothing but TOB contenders, but I didn't pick up a single book from my TOB stack until I'd flipped the calendar over to March. First The Marriage Plot. Last night, The Sense of an Ending.

And after I finished it last night I went looking for some discussion of the ending. I was totally blown away with how my interpretation differed from the interpretations that have been put forth on other blogs. Okay, I saw one person get around to mentioning the same idea I'd had in the comments to a post, but this comment didn't seem to snag anyone's interest.

Agree with me, argue with me, discuss with me. I'm throwing out what I think and hope you'll feel free to do that same.

The last email Tony's old girlfriend Veronica sends to him, near the end of the novel: "You still don't get it. You never did, and you never will. So stop even trying." This isn't the first time she's said these same lines to Tony.

Barnes is putting us on guard that any conclusions Tony reaches are apt to be wrong. So what does Tony conclude shortly thereafter?

That Veronica and Tony's old friend Adrian had a child together. That the deerstalker-helmeted mentally- challenged man that Veronica takes Tony to observe is the child that Veronica and Adrian had together before Adrian philosophically decided to end his life. Later, he modifies this conclusion when one of the caretakers of Adrian Jr. tells him that Veronica is actually Adrian Jr.'s sister. Tony's conclusion: Adrian had an affair with Veronica's mother. Tony's responsibility in all of this, he concludes (as many readers have as well), is that he wrote an ugly letter that sent Adrian to talk to Veronica's mother, who'd been nice to him, Tony, during one particularly trying weekend visit to his posh girlfriend's home, and who then subsequently must have been so nice to Adrian that she got pregnant by him. And then Adrian slit his wrists from shame, not philosophy.

Sorry, but I just don't see the nonpatronizing Sarah Ford, Veronica's mother, as a Mrs. Robinson simply because she waved goodbye to Tony that weekend in a way he interpreted as "not the way people normally do."

Remember how Tony points out that while these events were taking place in the Sixties, it was the Sixties "only for some people, only in certain parts of the country."

Back in the Sixties, in the places where it still felt like the Fifties, a daughter who got pregnant by a boy who didn't want to marry her, might very well find herself delegated into the role of sister to her own child while her mother raised her biological grandchild as her own. This was a common enough practice while I was growing up that whenever I wanted to be a smartass to my sister, who's 15 years older than me, I'd ask her to prove she wasn't really my mother. Yeah, I was a brat.

The importance of Sarah Ford's frying eggs, "in a carefree, slapdash way, untroubled when one of them broke in the pan," speaks of the ease she'd have of stepping in as mom after Adrian failed to provide legitimacy to the grandchild.

Remember how Adrian is the one who wonders whether Robson's girlfriend may have been pregnant by someone else. Why wouldn't he also wonder if his own girlfriend is carrying someone else's child, particularly after he receives Tony's letter? Adrian's so-called philosophical reasoning for suicide--"that life is a gift bestowed without anyone asking for it; that the thinking person has a philosophical duty to examine both the nature of life and the conditions it comes with; and that if this person decides to renounce the gift no one asks for, it is a moral and human duty to act on the consequences of that decision"--certainly reads differently if we consider that maybe he doesn't want to be stuck raising a life that he suspects belongs to Tony.

Why waste so much time at the end of the book on Tony's misunderstanding of what "hand-cut" chips means, if that's not a clue that Tony still doesn't have a clue?

Why did Veronica insist Adrian write Tony and tell them they were going out if she wasn't trying some last-ditch effort to make Tony try to win her back before she'd have to switch gears and convince Adrian, who was falling in love with her, that the baby she was carrying was his?

I'm not so sure Barnes gives an indication of when exactly Sarah Ford would have learned that Veronica's baby was fathered by Tony instead of Adrian. My take is that she wanted Tony to know the truth; hence, the "blood money," as Veronica calls it, left to Tony in her will and the bequeathing of Adrian's diary. I wouldn't be surprised if Sarah never had the diary in her possession (although he could have left it there when he went down to Chislehurst), but used it as a mcguffin to spark Tony's interest in uncovering the truth. Unfortunately, Tony being Tony, even in his old age is unable to do more than see the barn owl in a poem, not the Eros and Thanatos. He's like unimaginative Robson, who by Tony's mother's standards, should never have killed himself, because he wasn't clever enough to become unhinged.

You get towards the end of life - no, not life itself, but of something else: the end of any likelihood of change in that life. You are allowed a long moment of pause, time enough to ask the question: what else have I done wrong?

And for Tony, although he cannot see it, the answer to the question is everything; he's responsible for everything.

31 comments:

Andi said...

Hmmm. . . I did think, with Tony, that Adrian and Sarah Ford had an affair that brought forth the mentally disabled man that Tony sees on his visit with Veronica. That said, your reading is interesting . . . but honestly, it never occurred to me that the baby could be Tony's. . . just didn't even enter my mind. I'll have to ponder that.

Very interesting . . . I really will have to ponder this more. Thanks.

SFP said...

I find it fascinating how an ending can suggest such divergent readings. For me, it's no big deal that Tony suggested Adrian talk to Sarah. She was the mother of the woman he loved; at some point he was going to talk to her. But I can't make myself see how Adrian would immediately start an affair with her, or why Sarah wouldn't pass the child off as her husband's if she did have an affair, instead of blatantly naming the child Adrian Jr. after the presumed father.

Girl Detective said...

Fascinating stuff to ponder on! And could Veronica being called "mary" be another clue that she is in fact the mother? Also, by taking Tony's conclusion at the end to be "the ending" we do only get "a sense of an ending"

SFP said...

Could be. I've been wondering if the intent of having the son know V. by her middle name was so that she'd have further protection from anyone who knew her as Veronica (college friends) connecting her with a son named Adrian. . . and if he was named Adrian to throw anyone off in suspecting Tony to be the real father.

(And why wouldn't Veronica's father leave his wife if she'd gotten pregnant by Veronica's boyfriend and dared name the child after him?)

I absolutely agree that believing in Tony's conclusion only provides "a sense of an ending." Excellent point!

Girl Detective said...

At the end of the book, I was wrestling with why the mother had left Tony money and the diary. These didn't make sense with Adrian being the father, either with the mother or with Veronica. They make more sense with him as the unwitting father. I'm wondering about reading it again, searching for clues.

supratentorial said...

Hmmm, interesting. I like your thoughts. I did not read it this way, but I think I agree that it makes some things make more sense. I'll have to think about it some more.

Sherry said...

I like your ending. I, too, wasn't intelligent enough to puzzle this out, but I have to say in my own defense that I was dissatisfied with the obvious conclusions that Tony came to at the end. I wondered if he might not be the father, but I couldn't quite figure out the timeline. How long did Veronica date Adrian before he committed suicide?

I do believe, though, that you've got the real story, expressed in "traditional narrative terminology."

SFP said...

I need to reread. I was flipping through and saw that Veronica's mother had written to Tony after he and Veronica broke up. Don't know if we're supposed to take the rest of his memories of the letter at face value or not.

SFP said...

I'm still not sure that my reading is the correct one. It's just much more satisfying for me to read it this way!

SFP said...

I need to reread and pay more attention to the timeline, although I'm not sure how much stock we should put into it when it's based strictly on Tony's memories.

I'm still unsure when Tony and Veronica were together at the Severn Bake.

Teresa said...

I just finished reading the book yesterday--the opening of your post piqued my interest, so came back today to read your theory and I like it! My mind was grasping at the idea that Tony was the father, but I hadn't put all these details together. I too wonder about the timeline, but I'm not sure it's all that important since Tony himself as good as admits that he might be tweaking the timeline when he says he could just as easily have said he broke up with Veronica after they had sex, instead of before. (And indeed everything about the encounter and the following conversation makes it seem like they broke up after. He says before, but he doesn't convince me.)

I think, though, that Barnes is leaving all the doors open and that there's no "right" reading. All those references to history and documentation make me think that he's really going after the idea that we can't know, so some of us, like Tony, just choose to believe something, even if it isn't convincing.

Melody said...

I'm glad to have happened across your review. I recently read this book and the ending has been bothering me--feeling like what Tony concluding was missing the point somehow, but not sure how. I can tell you that Veronica's constant "you don't get it" comments were irritating! I kept thinking "I don't get it either--how can I when nobody really communicates??" Your thoughts work for me though. Thanks for giving me another angle from which to look at it!

Jibbsull said...

Very interesting, I didn't really get it either but your theory makes sense. Except if Veronica was the child's mother and Sarah raised it as her own, why would Sarah have had Adrian's diary? I still don't understand the $500 blood money, the definition of which is "money given in exhange for an illegal deed". So Sarah thinks she owed TOny a token of payment for not having told Tony that he had a son?

And when Tony saw the adult child, he immediately recognized Adrian's physical features. So how can we explain that?

Jibbsull said...

Oh that is very good, the part about her being called Mary, referring to the mother of Jesus. Very good, I didn't pick up on that. Thanks for pointing that out.

whisperinggums said...

Interesting theory, but I'm not sure I buy it. However it's a while since a while since I read the book. I read the "you just don't get it" repetition to be more about Tony's general emotional/social cluelessness. That makes sense to me, whereas saying he doesn't get some facts he's never been told doesn't make sense to me. That said, you've teased out some good ideas.

Ernest Hook said...

I think the many comments on the blog indicate that Julian Barnes’ “The sense of an ending” work is flawed in not providing a sufficiently convincing explanation of events. Of course perhaps that was the author's intent. If so he should have signaled it, perhaps by titling the work "A sense of ambiguity" if the author MEANT to leave things as uncertain as some readers felt. Most of those commenting on this blog state in essence that the "solution" Barnes provides at the end is not consistent with aspects of the character and "plot" he has described before. That is the sign of a flaw in construction of a book. But note if you take the book at face value, then Barnes treatment of the reader is similar to Veronica's treatment of Tony! "You just don't get it" might be his sly dig at the reader up to the very end! So I think it best and simplest to accept his explanation of events he wrote about as what he intended, and any apparent inconsistencies or discrepancies as simply flaws in his construction.
Ernie Hook

Wen Shi said...

It's interesting? The only thing is that how does this explain the equations in Andrian's diary?

gregchase said...

I think the biggest problem with this reading is that Tony mentions how much Adrian Jr. looks like Adrian. It seems like the only way to read this detail is that Adrian is the father--though, of course, this does not clear up the ambiguity as to the mother's identity.

Jayh said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Saatci said...

Is the disabled child son of Sarah ford and Adrian? Was Sarah Adrian's mother?

Anonymous said...

my thoughts are based on tony's comment on how Adrian Jr resembles Adrian. I guess Adrian and Veronica had a son - but Adrian committed suicide before the son was born. That is probably because of Tony's letter that made him question if Veronica had been with other men and the baby wasnt his. The family wanted to protect Veronica so they told everyone the baby was Sarah's and called Veronica ' Mary' so that others would not relate the past events to Veronica...

cant explain blood money though...

Emma said...

Fascinating thinking! Thank you so much for sharing your conclusion with us, it has thrown definite light on what was only a sense of the ending to the book. It does make sense looking at it that way, except it still doesn’t tie in with why veronicas mother would have had Adrian’s diary in her possession if she had not been close to him, surely veronica would have had it in her care after Adrian’s death. And more intriguingly why would Sarah ford pay Tony blood money, as it doesn’t really make sense why she saw him as the victim? Or does Veronica’s mother see Tony as a victim of Veronicas treating of Tony, the fact that her Sarah advises him to not let Veronica ‘get away with too much’ suggests this. So the blood money paid and the diary in the mothers possession still causes confuses to me? Any thought??

Jamie West said...

Interesting take on the novel, but the idea of the child being Tony's would contradict that he saw Adrian's features in the younger man. Unless he was so blind to it being his child that he was merely convincing himself of such similarities?

Anonymous said...

'Don't let Veronica get away with too much'is a clue. What if, Veronica was actually pregnant by her father and went back to sleep with Tony to 'hide' the truth? The incest produces a disabled child who is raised by Sarah as her own. The diary could hold the key to the who the real father is. Veronica will not share the diary because she doesn't want Tony to know the truth. The blood money could be left because Sarah does really feel badly about how Tony was treated and she wants tony to help Veronica deal with her past. Barnes says' when we are old, we invent different pasts for others'. This is also a clue. Tony (Barnes) has invented different pasts for all of the other characters in the novel. It doesn't solve the equation, unless Sarah didn't know who the father really was? or why Adrian committed suicide? unless Veronica had convinced Adrian that he was the father. Veronica could be the one character lying throughout.

Anonymous said...

Just read this book today, and first conclusion was: it's your son with Veronica, Tony! Then I thought, no wait, maybe it's Adrian's (with Veronica). Then I found this website, because now I'm completely lost: maybe there's something going on in Veronica's family, incest of some sort (father, or even brother? who tells her "he'll do" when he meets Tony). And now I'm even more confused, but I found a lot of clues here, and will probably re-read it at some point to try to figure something out. Either way, Tony really should just ask her "Well WHAT DON'T I GET?". It seems he is content with just a "sense of an ending" indeed.

SarahJane said...

Interesting conclusion worth considering. Personally I think Tony slept with Sarah and blocked it from his memory, like the letter he wrote long ago and gets back from Veronica. Sarah has Tony's child. That's the only thing that for satisfactorily explains the blood money, the broken egg yolk in the frying pan, the "you still don't get it," and the "great unrest."

Anonymous said...

The strength of this book is that the author makes it very clear in the comment that history is incomplate documentation coupled with equally bad memory. We are free to question any of the narrator's statements. i think that Adrian is an alter ego invented by Tony. He importantly turns up after Tony makes a pedantic answer to the what is history question: Adrian is the voice in the middle of the night that says "here is what you should have said" and we are presented with the novel's version of how the iconic statement could have occurred in class. Importantly, the memory of the suicide of the unknown teenage father was highly significant to him. To these sheltered students it represents the end of innocence which the students struggled to understand. Later Tony becomes involved with Veronica whose family is as dtsfunctional as she is. After the second rendezvous with Veronica's mother, now as Adrian, which resulted in the pregnancy, Tony killed off Adrian in his mind with a suicide. I see this as his attempt to "renounce" Adrian, an image suggested by the earlier death, and separate from Veronica. He continues the rest of his sadly ordinary life more or less as planned. Then of course Adrian Jr and Veronica turn up and he is stuck trying to reconcile his "memory" and the "documents". Veronica says he just doesn't get it, but probably she doesn't get it either. This type of fiction with ambiguous information is actually one of my favorites. Think The French Lieutenant's Woman, Life of Pi, and Atonement. By the way, I think 7the broken egg represents a Sarah miscarriage, and with the husband now infertile, both Veronica and her brother are involved in lining up a suitable sperm donor.

Meera said...

The story is not so great. But, the way it is told is brilliant. It is full of surprises and a little suspense, but at the end, the story does not appear worth of remembering. It finely narrates some events that started some half a century ago and enter in the present. The journey of a man from the childhood in the fifties/sixties to getting aged in the present world has been well-depicted (Although the story has a jump in time for about 30/40 years).
There is a reality unknown to the narrator. The unwrapping of that reality is done fantastically. Besides, the issues raised in different contexts are extra-ordinary, unconventional. Everyday-things appear in new colors. So, it is an experience reading this novel.
I will recommend this work to all those in search of a different taste in reading, but not to those who are in search of a new story. At the end, I felt that I did not read the whole novel to reach at this event which was to me quite boring and unworthy of my labor reading it. Although, I was entertained by how the whole story was told.

Hannah said...

Just finished this book last night and I also had the need to hear others ideas as to what it all means.
I think that there were other dysfunctional things going on in Veronica's family. From her alcoholic father who made up points of interest to Tony as he was driving him around, to Veronica's brother, to Sarah and her mysterious comments about her daughter to Tony. Warning him to be careful. When Tony wrote Adrian cruelly warning him about Veronica's family, I don't think Tony had any idea that what he wrote was true. He was just trying to get back at both Adrian and Veronica, but in fact, there was some type of deception going on in Veronica's family.
I think the impaired young man named Adrian, was in fact Adrian's and Sarah's son. I thought she sent Tony the 500 pounds as a thank you for sending Adrian to her. Did Veronica bring young men home to try out on her family to see if any of them wanted them? Why did she seem so devoted to her brother when she brought Tony home, but all those years later, showed no interest in him? Had there in fact been some type of incest going on in that family?
I am going to reread this book to see if I can gain some more clarity in the story.

Mirza Ghalib said...

It's a very interesting story? Actually the way the story has been presented is great. The only thing is that how does this explain the equations in Andrian's diary?. This story has lots of surpises and a bit of suspense. Well enjoyed reading it.

Anonymous said...

Please can someone share their thoughts on the equations in Adrian's diary. How does it makes sense for Tony?