The Sense of an Ending

Tuesday, 13 March 2012


There are some books that feel like finely distilled water. I love long books with all their detail and heaviness on my lap. But I’m also fascinated by authors who manage to say so much with so little. That’s how I view Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending. I’ve been meaning to write about this book for a few months, but I haven’t been able to figure out what I like about it so much. Today, I figured it out.

When I finished reading The Sense of an Ending last year, I emailed Brian Ferry asking for permission to feature some of his images with my review of the book. He very kindly said yes. This was a while ago and he probably thinks I’ve forgotten all about it. But I haven’t, I’ve just been waiting for the right moment to talk about this book and why it brought to mind Brian’s photography. I’m sure many of you have visited Brian’s blog and have seen his images floating around on the internet (sadly, many of them are uncredited). Brain’s images always move me when I see them, but it’s been hard for me to describe why. They deal with subject-matter and themes that many other photographers portray. But, there’s something else in Brian’s photographs which sets them apart for me: his photo of a cup is not the same as another photographer’s photo of a cup, for example.*


Today, I realised that what I appreciate in Brian’s images is exactly what I admire about The Sense of an Ending: the distilled emotion and honesty of both. I read the novel through a haze of clear blue, like someone was holding an imaginary magnifying glass over Barnes’s words, tinged with a blue outline. When I think of Brian’s photography, that’s the kind of image that comes to mind: clarity, honesty, simplicity.


It’s ironic really because The Sense of an Ending is all about our lack of understanding of each other and how erroneous personal memory can be. It’s not a unifying or philosophically coherent novel that aims to tie everything together. Rather, it presents an ordinary life examined through the imperfect lens of a subjective memory. I can understand why it left a lot of readers feeling depressed or unsatisfied, from this perspective. There are many issues that are raised through this novel, but for me, the most interesting one is nostalgia.


I’ve been turning over in my mind the question of nostalgia, and whether I suffer from it. I certainly don’t get soggy at the memory of some childhood knick-knack; nor do I want to deceive myself sentimentally about something that wasn’t even true at the time – love of the old school, and so on. But if nostalgia means the powerful recollection of strong emotions – and a regret that such feelings are no longer present in our lives – then I plead guilty.

-Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending.

The Sense of an Ending compelled me to consider the topic of nostalgia, which I’ve delved into quite strongly in my own book through a focus on national and cultural nostalgia. I’m wary of collective nostalgia and our current sense of infatuation with the ‘old school’ which romanticises the past through a haze of pretty and unrealistic images. Another example of this is also the nostalgic representation of Paris on the internet as a kind of fairy-tale city of constant prettiness. But I’m interested in the possibilities of a personal nostalgia.

In my field of the humanities, there are countless theories about memory and nostalgia in relation to how we understand history. But things become more difficult to talk about when we move on to the subjective sense of nostalgia. Because that powerful feeling of ‘recollection of strong emotions’ is not sentimentality, it has an ethics attached to it. When I remember someone, I’m participating in their own personal story, and I’m adding to mine. Even if there are flaws and errors in my memory, the act itself is like a bridge between myself and others. I guess that’s the ethics of personal nostalgia, from my perspective.


Sorry if this sounds a bit too ‘academic’, but I feel like recording this response to the novel. Has anyone read The Sense of an Ending? If so, what did you think of it? I read so many reader reviews of it on Amazon and it seems to inspire opposite reactions from different people, which I find really interesting.

Image sources: All images are copyrighted to Brian Ferry. Please don’t re-blog or use them without his permission and without proper credit. Thanks Brian!

*It’s been pointed out to me that this photo is probably a coffee filter holder rather than a cup. Well duh, I feel silly now. But you get my drift, Brian’s photos are special. He has some cups and glasses here if you’d like to see what I mean! I’m a stickler for accuracy, ahem.


Mariella said...

I haven't read the book but now I am curious so it's on my list (I read the marriage plot because of your review Hila!) but I do love Brian's photography and the images you chose are beautiful. I am a pretty "nostalgic" person myself so very interested in the topic (when is your book coming out?). Having said that, I always wonder why so many people(blogger in particular) seem to have in common the same stereotyped idea of Paris. this also should be analyzed I think.Perhaps you can start a new topic of research? :)

odessa said...

Wow, Brian's photos are amazing! I am especially in love with the dog in the last one, he looks so wise and I want to know his story.

I haven't read 'The Sense of an Ending' but I'm intrigued by this line: "But if nostalgia means the powerful recollection of strong emotions – and a regret that such feelings are no longer present in our lives – then I plead guilty."

I think this is what personal nostalgia means for me, too. Not a longing for a time or a place but more of missing a state of being, an emotion that I felt at a certain point in time or place.

Very thought-provoking post, Hila. Thank you.

elsan said...

I have read The Sense of an Ending and, while I can understand how some people are disappointed by, well, what in many ways is its lack of ending, I enjoyed its open sparseness. From my perspective, as someone interested in how human communication in theory and in practice, it was a bit depressing, I suppose. However, it also stressed how much work is needed in order to partially understand another person, the part memory plays in that, and the importance of occasionally stepping back to notice the gaps and mistakes in our memories of particular events.

I love the images you have linked with your review. I would, somewhat pedantically, note that the photograph is possibly not of a cup, but rather one of those individual coffee filter holders. As such, it reminds me of the smell of brewed coffee, possibly the sadness that the brewing process is over and the drinking is never quite as pleasurable as the smell of the making.

Hila said...

Eleanor: Oh true, you're right, it is a coffee filter holder! I feel silly now. Okay, well, his photo of a coffee filter holder is not like other photographers' :)

Gracia said...

Brian's photographs are distinctive and have that sense of effortless beauty to them. The viewer gets all the reward looking at them and Brian has carefully hidden all the fancy footwork... or, rather, this is how it feels to me.

Nostalgia is something I am often asked about in relation to collage. To me, though, the images don't feel so very nostalgic because I don't see them as fixed in a certain time or to a certain place. I find it liberating (both in terms of composition and creativity) to play with images from the past that are not always my everyday.

On a side note, have you read Svetlana Boym's The Future of Nostalgia?

katrin said...

Such sharp text & image match-ups again. Particularly the first image. My favourite thing about The Sense of an Ending was the conversation it sparked with my parents. We're not 'communal' readers really, but during our Summer holiday together each of my family members read it. I loved the contrasting perspectives on the story that age brought. My Dad's (70+) emphatic "Yes! The 1960's were so much more like the previous conservative decade than you would believe..."

At a recent postgrad prac review I was warned that my work was verging on nostalgia. I still haven't figured out what exactly was meant by the critique, but that bit in A Sense of an Ending made me think, yes of course I plead guilty. Thankfully.

Rhianne said...

I haven't read it but I love Brian's photos and the idea of them being synonymous really makes me want to read it now... this is a great post, I've always associated books with music but never with photos, I'm very taken with that idea though.

thesicklychild said...

I loved The Sense of an Ending for many of the reasons you outlined. It was evocative and nostalgic without being overly sentimental. The images you shared go perfectly. Thanks!

Kate said...

I read the book recently at a sitting; idly opening it with my morning coffee then realising that all my plans for the day would have to change. It shifted atoms about in me a little. Subjective narratives and how memories fit into that: I'm still trying to work out why I was so moved by the book. What I love about Brian's work is his attentiveness and the quiet dignity and beauty that he lends the ordinary. It's a lovely juxtaposition that I would never have thought of. Thank you.

etre-soi said...

Your post tells about a sense that I've always known as part of my culture, Portugal will always be a country where nostalgia is part of our daily life, just like bread. I think we cannot live in any other way. We have a word to say to those who are far or near how much we remember them contributing this way to make or remake the present. I plead guilty too ;-) because I'm a nostalgic inherited from my family, country and from my own life experience !

And yes, the way people see Paris always makes me smile and reminds me that once I felt the same, now that I live here since 15 years and since I've been missing my city -Lisbon - I can now say that nostalgia erases all the flaws and has a very restricted memory :)

Love that title - Sense of ending - it's like the unreal that lives in the real, just like Brian's photos.

Jane Flanagan said...

I read it and wrote about it on my own blog too. I loved it, though found myself saddened by it. It pairs beautifully with Brian's photos here.

rooth said...

I haven't read it but now will need to add it to my Amazon list. I'm glad you were able to find just the right pictures that portray the feeling the book evokes from you

Camila Faria said...

Brian's work is really unique. Wonderfully unique. Now I'm curious about this book. If it's as good as Brian Ferry's photography, then it's a shame not to read it.

Amelia said...

I am so checking this book out!

You always find the prettiest photographs.

Blaze said...

I think you captured it perfectly! Thanks for taking the time to say it well! I'm intrigued to take a look at the book!

jodi said...

I strolled over from the Verhext blog earlier today and I've really enjoyed reading through some of your posts here so I thought I'd say hello.

I lived in Paris for three years, and moved away about a year and a half ago. It is funny to think about Paris and nostalgia... when I lived there a lot of my daily life was commuting on hot, smelly, overcrowded subways, and feeling the physical effects of living in a large city with horrendous air pollution. Not to say that there weren't lovely aspects to my life there... certainly there were many... but I always thought it was a much nicer city to visit than to live in. That said, this long after moving, perhaps fuelled by the internet, I am experiencing something of a nostalgic sort of longing for it these days.

I haven't read "The Sense of an Ending" yet, but I plan on doing so.

BF said...

Thanks, Hila and everyone else - I appreciate your very kind words about my photos! How flattering.

I haven't read the book yet - but what struck me about the quote you posted is how my own sense of nostalgia is certainly a powerful recollection of strong emotions and the regret that they are no longer present - but such emotions are always inextricably linked with a past time or place or thing. It's the same thing. It's often a nostalgia for something or some place in my past because of the emotions it stirs that are no longer present.

deconstructingthegirl said...

I have not read this book, but your review definitely got me interested in the novel and its underlying themes. I agree with the novel's take on nostalgia, I think its a regret of feelings that are no longer there rather than a desire to recreate the past.

lin said...

Lovely post! I like a few books by Julian Barnes and have been waiting to check this out when it's available in paperback, and you've just made a very compelling case for me to push this to the top of my reading list.

And it's really generous of Brian Ferry about the use of his photographs, I think it sets a good example for bloggers, and it's given me something to think about my own blogging habits

Hila said...

Mariella: as of today (and as you know), I know the book's release date! 31 August, this year :) I can't wait! What did you think of The Marriage Plot? I'm pretty nostalgic too, but I hope, not in a bad way.

Odessa: That's what nostalgia means for me too - an emotion. Aren't Brian's photos just great? That one with the dog is particularly wonderful.

Eleanor: Yeah, I could understand the reviews that called the book 'depressing' too, because it expressed such a profound lack of understanding between human beings. But you know, I kind of find these types of stories reassuring in their honesty. I'm one of those people who thinks other people are a lot more confidant in themselves and their perceptions than I am. So to read such an honest depiction of the lack of coherency between people makes me feel less alone, ironically.

Gracia: No I haven't read it, but it's on my list now! I love how you describe Brian's photography, because that's exactly how I see it, hidden fancy footwork and all. And yes, I understand what you mean: playing around with these images from the past is a way of engaging with them more critically, rather than sentimentally.

Katrin: hmmm, I would have asked for an explanation of what that meant :) I think my parents would have hated this novel, which is a shame as it would be nice to talk to them about it.

Rhianne: I've always associated books with colours and images, so it seems natural to me to review them this way.

thesicklychild: it was definitely not sentimental! In fact, brutally honest at times.

Kate: Yes, that's it, Brian is really attentive to detail, in such a non-cliche manner. It took me a while to figure out why The Sense of Ending moved me so much too.

etre-soi/Sofia: ha, yes, nostalgia does erase all flaws :) I think personal nostalgia can be really wonderful, I worry though when it's used in collective ways - particularly politically. I've been seeing it creeping into current politics.

Jane Flanagan: It was very sad - it wasn't a 'feel-good' novel at all. Depending on what my mood is, that can be either good or bad.

Rooth: It was luck :)

Camila: exactly, so I hope you read it.

Amelia: thanks!

Blaze: I hope you like it.

jodi: Hi there! I think that's totally natural. When I was in the UK, it could be so exhausting living there at times. Now that I'm back in Australia I miss it terribly :) Once you're no longer stuck in the daily grind of normal life, a place becomes far more attractive. We forget that every city has its flaws.

BF: I'm so glad you like the post! I was hoping it would do justice to your photographs. I'm even more glad that the quote I've chosen resonates with you.

deconstructingthepast: Yes, that's how I view my own nostalgia too.

lin: It is very generous of Brian, especially considering how many times his work is blogged without credit. And yes, do read the novel!

Sophie said...

I scrolled down and didn't read your post, because I want to read the book first, but I wanted to say that I stumbled across it some days ago and now you posted this review and I'm looking forward to read it, because I like your reviews so much, especially the one about "Never let me go" (if I never heard about a book or movie, I always read your reviews and sometimes plan to read/see them afterwards, but this time I didn't want to spoil my impression).

SARAH said...

This is so interesting, the notion of memory and nostalgia and the endings that prompt such feelings. In creative writing studies, there's a suggestion that endings are hard to write because most of us rarely experience a full and proper ending. For all we know, all the endings we've ever encountered are temporary suspensions. But then again, so many of us feel nostalgic (or are we claiming a collective nostalgia, like you mentioned?), so we must have several, true endings in us.

Ana said...

Hila! Wonderful post!

I'm an admirer of Brian's photos myself, so I think they suit this post perfectly. Haven't read The Sense of an Ending, but now I'm looking forward to it. My University Thesis was a documentary about the relation of documentary films and memory... so I'm always curious about all things related to memory, history, and nostalgia.

I have to hurry to be able to read all the books I want this year!

Really nice post, review, recommendation and photos, of course.

Hila said...

Sophie: I understand, I definitely don't want to spoil anyone's reading experience.

Sarah: This book doesn't really have an ending, it just stops. There's a difference - and in that difference, I could understand what was unique about the book.

Ana: Your thesis sounds fascinating! I'd love to find out more ...

T C said...

I love so much his photography. He has a sharp eye for little details, but more than that he can shoot in a such true and natural way. have a good weekend, dear Hila! :)

Hila said...

TC: I agree :)

Belgie said...

I greatly enjoyed this short novella, about a retired man (Tony) looking back on his life and his remorse at how flippant actions in his youth had drastic consequences later in life. The book gripped me from the very first pages. Julian Barnes has a wonderful economy of words, and stylistically I could not think of a single word out of place. The characters are well drawn and the periods in question (the 1960s and the present time) are beautifully evoked. As a middle-aged man I found myself identifying with Tony's maudlin assessment of his life, and his attempt to put past wrongs right.

For those who have not yet followed the debate about the plot, the title is a pun: it covers both Tony's attempt to make sense of his life, and the rather abrupt plot twist at the end, which makes you wonder what the 'sense of the ending' really is. I found the final plot twist slightly implausible, and still don't quite understand it, but as the previous 155 pages were such an exquisitely pleasurable read, Barnes's indulgence at the end did not really bother me.

Hila said...

Belgie: I absolutely agree about what you've said regarding Barnes' economy with words. I admired the way sparse words fit so beautifully together, when other authors perhaps would have needed more words to express what he did. It's not always a style I like, or that I tend to enjoy. But it worked here so well.

As for the ending, I think I have a high tolerance for indulgence, so it didn't really bother me. I liked the twist, implausible as it was, because it left things unsettled. A story like this one couldn't really end on an uncomplicated, final note.