The blossoming collaboration of the Booker Foundation and St Andrews University continued last week with the visit of author Julian Barnes. This year’s novel, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, winner of the Booker Prize in 2011, marks the sixth year of the burgeoning tradition. Every year, incoming freshers receive a copy of a chosen prize-winning book; previous books have included Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2009), A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry (2012) and last year the critically acclaimed Life of Pi by Yann Martel. The chosen book’s distribution always culminates in the author’s visit and staged talk in the first few months of the academic year.
Never had the rows of Buchanan lecture theatre been so full of such alert people as they were on the 23rd September, when Barnes arrived on the stage. As the excited new students clutched undented copies of the book, and the reserved rows at the front steadily filled up with professors, charcoal grey suits and hair, a sudden hush descended upon the room. The principal Louise Richardson took the floor to begin the evening, welcoming Barnes, and explaining her hope that distributing books to new students would allow them to all have something to talk about, despite their varied backgrounds, thus bringing everyone together, as well as encouraging the spread of new ideas.
She detailed the plot briefly. The Sense of an Ending begins at a school, with the narrator Tony recalling his clique’s meeting and friendship with new boy Adrian Finn, a quiet, intelligent teenager who impresses everyone with his philosophical reasoning. Vowing to remain friends for life, everything nevertheless changes when they all go their separate ways for university. After the unexpected happens in the form of a suicide, the group try to move on, but later in life, with the arrival of a lawyer’s letter disclosing a surprising revelation, Tony is forced to confront again all that happened. Through the book Barnes contemplatively explores the nature of time, memory and remorse, and the interplay of these themes.
During his talk, Julian Barnes’s quiet and intellectual voice – not unlike his character of Adrian Finn, held the listeners in suspense, eliciting the odd chuckle as he strayed into the strange conversational realms of humorous chicken strangling, false memories of childhood and the old typewriter that he still writes his books on. He explained that for him, a writer must gain completely the trust of their reader. Feeling from the very first page as if they are in safe hands, ready to be taken on a convincing journey, a complicity between writer and reader can therefore develop. It is this, according to Barnes, which puts the reader and writer on the same level and makes the book truly readable, something which he hopes to have achieved.
Critics have suggested that he has indeed achieved this and much more. Peter Kemp of the Sunday Times called the novel ‘a harsh tale rich in humane resonances,’ whilst Toby Clements of The Daily Telegraph described it as ‘a work of rare and dazzling genius.’ Shortlisted for the Booker Prize three times previously, for Flaubert’s Parrot in 1984, England, England in 1998 and Arthur & George in 2005, The Sense of an Ending marked the first time Barnes actually won the prize. The book was also nominated in the Best Novel category in the 2011 Costa Book Awards.
One of Barnes’s closing remarks contained advice for budding writers. Every writer needs to be a good reader, he specified, and must love both language and stories. But the originality is more mysterious, and comes from within.