When Evelyn Waugh sent the manuscript of "Brideshead Revisited" to his friend and fellow novelist Nancy Mitford, her response was enthusiastic, except for wishing that his protagonist was less dim and had a little more glamour. But, of course, Waugh was making a conscious artistic decision, and Julian Barnes has made a similar choice in his brief novel, which Tuesday was awarded England's Man Booker Prize.
Tony Webster, the middle-aged, middle-class, middle-of-the-road narrator of "The Sense of an Ending," has few illusions about himself or the safe path he has chosen. He seems comfortable with a sense that his road through life has been uneventful and does not hesitate to categorize himself as mediocre. Retired from a safe but reasonably satisfying job as an arts administrator, he maintains a distant but friendly relationship with an ex-wife amicably divorced years ago and with an adult daughter and her family he seldom sees. He volunteers to keep busy and feels happy in what many might describe as a rut:
"And that's a life, isn't it. Some achievements and some disappointments. It's been interesting to me, though I wouldn't complain or be amazed if others found it less so... Not that I would have missed my life for anything, you understand."
So dim, un-glamorous Tony is the perfect complacent character to have his world shaken up and, with the unexpected arrival of a legacy — in part monetary but also including a tangible chunk of history — he duly sets about reevaluating his past. What he discovers in the course of this picaresque quest of self-examination upends his comfortable self-image and fundamentally reconfigures relationships to and among people he believed were only tangentially related to his life's journey:
"My younger self had come back to shock my older self with what that self had been, or was, or was sometimes capable of being."
Tony's mnemonic odyssey takes him back to his school days and his place among four boys, who, in their different ways, questioned the received wisdom of their day. Adrian, the most brilliant, goes on to Cambridge, while Tony is happy with his middling choice of a provincial university. But as Adrian and Tony make their way through early 1960s Britain, they each struggle with shibboleths and prohibitions in a time and place where things don't swing nearly as much as popular myth would have it:
"So 'It doesn't feel right' had far more persuasive force and irrefutability than any appeal to church doctrine or mother's advice. You may say, But wasn't this the sixties? Yes, but for only some people, only in certain parts of the country."
Like his contemporary Ian McEwan in his short novel "On Chesil Beach," Barnes skillfully evokes a surprisingly uptight, straight-laced England before, in the words of Philip Larkin's poem, "Sexual intercourse began in nineteen sixty-three." http://www.wussu.com/poems/plam.htmBut as neatly placed time bombs explode where and when and how Barnes has strategically planted them, Tony's view of what happened and what it all meant alters radically.
"The Sense of an Ending" packs into so few pages so much that the reader finishes it with a sense of satisfaction more often derived from novels several times its length. The emotional roller coaster ride that Tony Webster has taken with us perched on his shoulder has such heft and intensity that we feel we too have truly experienced his life-altering revision of what he mistakenly believed to be a humdrum existence. So there is a kind of final justice that the prestigious prize that eluded Julian Barnes with such novels as "Flaubert's Parrot" and "Arthur & George" has finally come to him with this little jewel of conciseness and precision.