The Sense of an Ending

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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.*

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.