The book is a novel, told first-person, whose plot hinges on the narrator's attempt to understand, forty years on, the events set in motion by an early love affair as it intersected with youthful friendships. Both the point and the method of the narrative are described in a jocular definition of "history," offered by one of those friends in a history class:
"'History is that certainty produced at the point when the mperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.'"History — from Greek ἱστορία - historia, meaning "inquiry, knowledge acquired by investigation," ever-helpful Wikipedia tells us — is a particular example of "understanding": an approach to an awareness of the significance of past events as they relate to one another and thereby to the present (including, by extension, the future as it may be inflected by the present).
—The Sense of an Ending, p. 18
The Sense of an Ending is a parable of the historical process, written three years after Barnes's memoir-contemplation Nothing to be Frightened Of, which meant a great deal to me when I read it a year ago, as my blog post at the time indicates:
Barnes loops gracefully through confrontations with these four principal themes (death; dying; God; religion; remember?) and more; interweaving funny stories about his childhood and his philosopher brother (who, oddly, lives at the near geographical center of France in order to teach in Geneva); and considering similar confrontations by a number of minds of the highest ranks.["Loops"; "memoir-contemplation." I have always enjoyed Francis Ponge's mediation on what he calls momon."Texte qui inclut sa propre critique," says Larousse;
…toute œuvre d'art comportant sa propre caricature, ou dans laquelle l'auteur ridiculiserait son moyen d'expression. La Valse de Ravel est un momon. Ce genre est particulier aux époques où la rhétorique est perdue, se cherche.says Ponge (Le Savon (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1967), p. 42-3.)*
The momon, a concept significant enough to be incorporated into English, hence no longer to be italicized here, is the intellectual attitude of our time, which is reeling still from the discoveries of Modernism, which depended on dispersal, acceleration and dispersal; and so lapsed into the kind of apparent chaos every generation perceives in its own context. Earlier generations found refuge in such chaos in religion, in Enlightenment, in mechanics; my generation found it in the momon.
And I just notice now that "loops" is "spool," backward: it is not true, ironically, that no loops spool on.]
The method of The Sense of an Ending involves momon, and recursion; it is a literary form of what Wikipedia calls "Droste effect" and heraldry refers to as mise en abyme, where abyme means not really "abyss' but something closer to "vortex": in fact, center. I first noticed this effect when I was a little boy, seeing the label of an evaporated-milk can, whose picture reproduced itself. Later, of course, another version of mise en abyme struck me in the barber shop.
I think every observant child, and aren't they all, discovers mise en abyme, and that the event and its effect are significant in the shaping of the growing consciousness. (Interesting to speculate on the result of the delay of such awareness in societies lacking mirrors or evaporated milk.) And as the first awareness of this kind of recursion comes early in life, the particular sort of reflection on its significance often comes late in life… "when rhetoric, being lost, seeks itself," as Ponge says (or "dying, examines itself," in Dunlop's thoughtful translation).
Many of the online detractors of The Sense of an Ending fixate on the personalities of the principal characters and overlook the meditation Barnes centers on them — they don't see the label for the cow, the mirrors for the image reflected by them. Of course the danger of any rhetorical figure, whether or not perdue, is that it will distract its audience from the meaning the figure is intended to convey. I suppose it's the irony of our time that so many no longer understand the meaning of "irony," and take it to mean merely a state of being hiply flippant.
*"…any work of art including its own caricature, or one in which the author was to ridicule his means of expression. The Waltz of Ravel is a momon. The genre is peculiar to periods in which rhetoric, dying, examines itself." Ponge: Soap, tr. Lane Dunlop (London: Jonathan Cape, 1969), p. 33.