Self-delusion has been a major theme in literature almost since its inception: think Oedipus and you get the idea. There is also Macbeth and Don Quixote. In a slightly more modern vein, think of Jane Eyre (in the novel of the same name), Madame Bovary (ditto), Harry Haller in Steppenwolf, Willie Loman in The Death of a Salesman, Jane Austen’s Emma, Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire – the list goes on and on.
The Sense of an Ending, the 2011 Booker Award winning novel by Julian Barnes, is an excellent example of self-delusion, so finely parsed, in fact, that the reader needs to pay close attention to realize the extent and depth of that delusion. The novel opens with a recounting of four school-age friends, delineating who they were, what happened to them at school, and their lives immediately after. This section of the book, Part One, ends around page 60 with a couple of brief paragraphs which abruptly summarize the life of one the friends, Tony Webster, our narrator, and transports him all the way up to retirement, which is where Part Two begins.
A span of some 40 years is glossed over and now Webster is looking back on the events in Part One, the stuff of his life, and trying to piece together all that happened and what its significance might be. There will be no spoilers here; the book is a brief 160 plus pages and may be read easily in one sitting. I suggest readers not do this, unless they are prepared to immediately begin it again, for this is a novel that warrants an immediate second read, especially if read quickly.
The Sense of an Ending has some touchstones of the coming of age novel: a new, slightly different boy joins an established clique, there is first love and loss, betrayal, and the full gamut of resultant emotional turmoil. There is self-delusion in abundance and the reader sees, or more precisely doesn’t quite see, all this through the narrator’s eyes. Ironically, this introduces an element of mystery; the reader can’t quite fathom the import of events because she feels that there is something not quite right, some particular something that seems to be missing.
Back in my own college days, I had a professor who offered the following maxim for reading a good book: once for the intelligent and aware, twice for the intelligent and unaware, and three times for the unintelligent and unaware. On first reading The Sense of an Ending, I felt that, as a reader, I was somewhere between the second and third categories. What makes the novel so fascinating, particularly for a someone who falls in the later two categories, is that the reader is essentially in the same position as the self-deluded narrator and so, when the revelation comes (again, no spoilers), it packs a bit of a wallop, perhaps more than it should have (see category one), yet all the more effective for that.
This may be the long way round to saying that Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending is that rare modern award-winning book; it is at once engaging and important, slightly mysterious and impeccably written, a book whose import will resonate far, far longer than the time it takes to read.
And that, for me, is the definition of an excellent novel, indeed.
PS. The one downside to recommending a novel that recently won a prestigious award is that there can be a lengthy wait. Though the book is short and there are a number of copies in the system, I thought it might do to recommend a few other outstanding, highly-acclaimed titles by Mr. Barnes that you might like to peruse while you wait:
Flaubert’s Parrot. “Barnes’s contemporary classic follows loosely in the footsteps of acclaimed 19th-century French novelist Gustave Flaubert, serving as capsule biography, work of critical art, record of cross-generational authorial jealousy, and a portrait of obsession.” Publisher’s Weekly
Arthur and George. “Chronicles the lives of two boys–one who is forgotten by history, and one who becomes the creator of the world’s most famous detective–as they pursue their separate destinies until they meet in a remarkable alliance.” Novelist
Pulse: Stories. “In (Barnes’) third (short story) collection, his gift for deft, acerbic dialogue is finely honed, most enjoyably in a quartet of dinner-party stories. Friends dissect the Euro question, the 2008 U.S. presidential election, global warming, and the British passion for marmalade. Gender divides figure prominently throughout the book … Barnes’ tales are shrewd, piquant, and moving.” Booklist
A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters. “Noah’s Ark, Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa and “an offbeat vision of the Hereafter” are some of the ingredients of this pyrotechnical work. Admirers of Barnes are accustomed to thoroughly unorthodox approaches to the novel” Publisher’s Weekly