World and time: the sense of an ending

Adrian Barlow has now retired from the Institute of Continuing Education. You can follow his new blog at


The Sense of an Ending was originally the title of an influential book of literary criticism and critical theory by Frank Kermode, about whom I wrote last year. Now the title has been recycled, this time for a new novel by Julian Barnes, published this month.* It’s a book I strongly recommend, and I’m not surprised it is already on this year’s Booker Prize long list.

The narrator of the novel is Tony Webster, a man in his early sixties who has had a mostly uneventful life until he is unexpectedly forced to revisit a period forty years earlier when his close friend at school, Adrian Finn, committed suicide. On one level, it’s Adrian’s ending of which Tony still has to make sense; however, he is also confronting his own mortality and trying to make sense of what his life has amounted to now that he is retired. He has the uneasy feeling that the life to which he had looked forward with such expectation in the 1960s has already started to slip into the past tense. All of which he finds unsettling:

It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age: when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others (p.80)

The creating of a history for oneself, the rewriting of history for others and the recovery – if possible – of the real truth (surely a revealing tautology?) is a key theme of Barnes’s novel. So it has also been of a surprising number of other novels and plays from the twenty-first century to date: Philip Roth’s The Human Stain (2000), W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz (2001), Ian McEwan’s Atonement (2001), Alan Bennett’s The History Boys (2004) and Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love (2010, about which I also blogged recently), among others.

There’s always a danger in treating the past that one lapses into nostalgia, and this is a danger of which Tony is well aware:

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. (p.81)

In this my last week at Madingley, I too have been trying hard to resist nostalgia but it’s not easy when you have known a place like this for over thirty five years. I first came to Madingley on a course in 1974 and have taught here for the Institute since 1998. It’s the best job I’ve ever had. So I have been focusing on the last lecture I shall give in Cambridge this afternoon. It’s on Seamus Heaney’s latest collection, Human Chain (about which I blogged when I first read it last October).

There is a strong sense of an ending about this book, too. Indeed, I have called my lecture ‘Last Words? Heaney’s Human Chain’. In these poems the poet looks back over his life from the perspective of someone recently brought face to face with mortality: Heaney suffered a stroke in 2006, and some of the most poignant and powerful poems in the collection are about this experience.

As ever, though, with Heaney, the sense of place is also very strong, whether he writes about the farms and country roads of Northern Ireland he has known all his life or the small communities, villages and towns whose names still resonate from news items about ‘the Troubles’ any time these past forty years. The places he recalls have sometimes witnessed public grief and private tragedy, but his sense of commitment to them is stronger than ever. (A line from Jane Austen’s Persuasion comes to mind: ‘One does not love a place the less for having suffered in it’.) So there is something wonderfully affirmative – not nostalgic at all - in the conclusion Heaney reaches in ‘A Herbal, after Guillevic’s Herbier de Bretagne’:

I had my existence. I was there.
Me in place and the place in me.

By any reckoning, that’s a good note on which to end.

Adrian Barlow
17 August 2011

[photo: Madingley Hall weathervane, SE tower

*Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending (London: Jonathan Cape 2011

This is the seventy eighth and final posting to ‘World and time’, the blog I have written for ICE over the past two years. I have enjoyed blogging and have set up a new blog to write in my retirement. You can read the first post at


# Garry Headland 2011-08-17 09:07 One feels very strongly that a comment is in place here. At the end of June I attended the retirement of a cyclist friend who had taught English in the same school since its opening thirty-five years ago. He tells me the paint was still wet the day he began. What changes in teaching in those thirty five years! And I could sense that he was part of the place, too. Now he’s in the enviable position of most of my cyclist chums – he can get out on his bike up to three times a week all year round. Moreover, he’s asked me to lend him English novels to catch up on his reading. I shall point him to the old and the new blogs to whet his appetite. After my parents sold the house they had bought 47 years before I had a similar desire to rewrite the past, trying to conjure up ‘the powerful recollection of strong emotions’ in the form of short poems. Some of them worked not only on myself but on other readers. Some were less successful. But how difficult it is to write! In the end is my beginning? Reply | Reply with quote | Quote
# garry headland 2011-09-01 19:24 I've just received my copy of Juian Barnes' 'The Sense of an Ending', the hardback edition, and I see it won the David Cohen Prize. The dust cover is lovely, and the edge of the book seems to have been dipped into black ink, giving the impression of a notification of decease. The design incorporates a photograph of dandelions, which we used to tell the time with by blowing onto the seeds. It's a highly suggestive dust cover and a lovely printed edition. I don't know when I shall get chance to read it as today is the first day back at school, but it looks very tempting and is only 150 pages long. Thanks for the tip, Adrian. Reply | Reply with quote | Quote
# NAEEM UL FATEH 2011-11-02 10:26 Great breathless writing, we always write history for others.

Muhammad Naeem ul Fateh, PhD
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# daniel 2012-07-21 04:22 I just found your blog a few weeks ago and I have really enjoyed reading it since then. Your content is very informational. Keep posting the good blogs! Reply | Reply with quote | Quote