Martin Amis likes to quote Julian Barnes as saying that novelists write "around" their themes rather than "on" them. While Amis's own generalisations are the product of a refusal to say "in my experience", however, Barnes's remark is true in most cases - just not in his.
Starting with Metroland, published in 1981, Barnes has exhibited a preference for essayism and schematic structures over indirection and organic drama, for the comforting obedience of types over the potentially disquieting autonomy of characters.
He has written a shelf of novels that purr with the same contented ease as the essays collected in Letters from London and Something to Declare. Immune or averse to the strictures for authorial conduct set down by Flaubert ("must be . . . present everywhere and visible nowhere"), Barnes has taken refuge in facts and riffs and quips. This is a position rather than a problem per se, and an approach that the novel (neither Flaubert's invention nor his property) certainly permits. Yet making it work depends overwhelmingly on such non-dependable quantities as wit and charm, and the results when it fails can be exasperating.
Barnes's new novel, which borrows the title of a book by Frank Kermode, is a tale or study of reflection and reminiscence, an exercise in old-school Barnesian conversation, but in tune with the late-Barnes mood initiated by The Lemon Table (2004) - still too clever by more than half but with a new sobriety. The Sense of an Ending is concerned mainly with what Kermode calls the "problem of making sense of the way we make sense of the world", but the insights don't extend much beyond a line from Flaubert's Parrot: "The past is autobiographical fiction pretending to be a parliamentary report."
The book's narrator, Tony Webster, is a rueful, solitary sixtysomething like the Flaubert-fixated Geoffrey Braithwaite, but he describes an early-Sixties adolescence similar to that of Christopher Lloyd in Metroland - commuting from the suburbs to a London day school, envying a friend who reinforces his lack of daring and glamour. The friend is Adrian, introduced, like Charles Bovary, as the "new boy" in class, but he turns out to have more in common with Christopher's Jewish friend Toni, whose "swarthy, thick-lipped Middle European features" emphasised Christopher's "snub-nosed, indeterminately English face".
Adrian's exoticism is neither religious nor racial, but social - he comes from "a broken home" - and intellectual: "If Alex had read Russell and Wittgenstein, Adrian had read Camus and Nietzsche." Adrian's tastes are Continental, and so is his spiritual allegiance: "I hate the way the English have of not being serious about being serious. I really hate it." In contrast to everyone else, he has a life that is "novel-worthy".
The second section of the book portrays the recent circumstances, involving an unexpected bequest, which have prompted Tony's memories of his adolescence and exacerbated his regrets about the cowardice and passivity of his middle years ("Life went by"). Having realised how little he understood as a boy, Tony errs - deafeningly - on the side of caution: "I couldn't at this distance testify", "to be true to my memory, as far as that's ever possible", "Again, I want to stress that this is my reading now of what happened then", "At least, that's how I remember it now". He is so conscientious in elaborating on what his story means, and so plain-spoken in setting out his character ("a man who found comfort in his own doggedness"), that the reader is left with nothing to do.
In a recent essay on - or rather around - Lydia Davis's translation of Madame Bovary, Barnes took a swipe at Kazuo Ishiguro (identified as a "contemporary author"), and yet he would have benefited from observing Ishiguro's subtle example. The narrators of The Remains of the Day and When We Were Orphans reveal a great deal about themselves without being eloquent or analytical - and a great deal about time, history and memory without making those words the commonest in their vocabulary.
Even if Barnes intends Tony's reflections to sound ridiculous - and it is hard to tell - he uses them to point up his concerns. Time, Tony says, "holds us and moulds us", "first grounds and then confounds us". The classroom discussions recalled in the opening pages prepare (or, as Tony sees it, foreshadow) the ideas that emerge in the novel about our attempts to impose a narrative shape on the data of our lives, and the inevitable bias and blind spots of the person doing the imposing.
Given that Tony is looking back on a period that wrought great changes in him, it is odd that his narration should rely so heavily on conceits and sly reversals and quotations and rhetorical questions - that he is still so unserious about being serious. Even 15 pages from the end, he remains consumed with the inessential, describing a gentrified pub that offers "chargrilled this and that", and one of whose four blackboards bears "an epigrammatic thought for the day, no doubt transcribed from some corporate book of wit and wisdom". Tony is fond of the word "life", observing, in another riff, that footballers have their best years behind them before they have even understood "what life's about". But what, in Julian Barnes's vision, is life about anyway?
I never thought I would have cause to say this, but Gabriel Josipovici may have been on to something in What Ever Happened to Modernism?. "Reading Barnes," he wrote, "leaves me feeling that I and the world have been made smaller and meaner . . . The irony which at first made one smile, the precision of language, which was at first so satisfying, the cynicism, which at first was used only to puncture pretension . . . come to seem like a terrible constriction, a fear of opening oneself up to the world." Josipovici traces the "petty-bourgeois uptightness" of Barnes and his kind back to Philip Larkin, three of whose lines Tony quotes in The Sense of an Ending, identifying him simply as "the poet".
Yet you don't need Josipovici's allegiances and antipathies to feel enervated by Barnes's "smartness". Like Amis, especially in The Information and The Pregnant Widow, and Craig Raine in Heartbreak, Barnes possesses not just an ironic but an almost post-novelistic sensibility. I say almost: theirs is a form of scepticism about artifice and stories - but with a strain of sentimentalism, a taste for the plaintive and dewy-eyed when it comes to sex, fading vitality and death. But knowingness predominates.
The result, in this instance, is an odd and unnerving sort of novel, in which even a description of a lawyer is reduced to the status of feed line: "Mr Gunnell is a calm, gaunt man who doesn't mind silence. After all, it costs his clients just as much as speech." In one of many digressions - this time on insurance companies - Tony recalls: "Towards the end of my marriage, the solid suburban villa Margaret and I lived in suffered a little subsidence. Cracks appeared here and there, bits of the porch and front wall began to crumble. (And no, I didn't think of it as symbolic.)" A novelist so insistent on staying one step ahead may find himself without readers to follow him.
Leo Robson is the New Statesman's lead fiction reviewer