February 22, 2012
The Sense of an Ending
By Julian Barnes
(Knopf, 163 pp., $23.95)
Is it worth it? Life, I mean—is it worth it? Julian Barnes isn’t sure. “I am certainly melancholic myself,” he says in Nothing to Be Frightened Of, a memoir-cum-meditation-on-death, “and sometimes find life an overrated way of passing the time.” Martha Cochrane, in England, England, thinks about “the thinness of life, or at least life as she had known it, or chosen it.” “She had done little in her time,” Jean Serjeant thinks in Staring at the Sun, and Gregory, her son, had done less. “But why should he do anything?” she asks. “Because it’s the only life he’ll get?” Then there are two of Barnes’s favorite quotations: “Birth, and Copulation, and Death”—T.S. Eliot’s summary of the business (though the second term, in Barnes as in Eliot, is often as joyful as the word suggests); and “By dint of saying ‘That is so! That is so!’ and of gazing down into the black pit at one’s feet, one remains calm”—Flaubert this time, Barnes’s master, where the pit is less death than the meaninglessness of life in a God-empty world.
And so to The Sense of an Ending, Barnes’s latest, a book of undeniable but fairly modest merits I’d place no higher than sixth among his eleven novels. The story follows a familiar pattern: call it the missing middle. Tony Webster, the protagonist, reflects upon his life from the vantage point of late middle age. We hear a lot about his youth: his friend Adrian Finn, a sort of schoolboy Wittgenstein, all moral scrupulosity and logical precision; Tony’s first, unhappy love affair at university with a frosty young woman named Veronica Ford; Adrian and Veronica’s subsequent involvement; Adrian’s methodical and, as it seems, philosophical suicide. Then a couple of pages take us through the whole of Tony’s adulthood: marriage, job, child, divorce, retirement-a great blank at the center of his story, as if, after all, there isn’t much to say. “Some achievements and some disappointments,” he concludes with a Barnesian shrug. “That’s a life, isn’t it?”
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