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.