The title of Julian Barnes’s new novel is a good one but it is not original. In 1967 the literary critic Frank Kermode published The Sense of an Ending, a study of the relationship between time, fiction and apocalyptic thought. ‘At some very low level,’ wrote Kermode, ‘we all share certain fictions about time.’ By daring to regulate the flow of sand through the hourglass – speeding it up or even, on occasion, stopping it – stories defy the shapelessness of real time. They protect us from primordial chaos.
There is no suggestion that Tony Webster, the narrator of Barnes’s unsettling novella, has read Kermode’s book, but you wouldn’t be surprised. When we first encounter him, Tony is one of a gang of precociously intellectual schoolboys. His companions, Alex and Colin, idolise Wittgenstein and Baudelaire. The three