The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes
I grew up, like many people, believing memory to be a sort of hologram stored in the brain. An accurate image of what was once perceived, once felt. Of course that’s not true. Memory is a reconstruction, and frequently a faulty one. As a factoid I think that’s fairly widely known now, but knowing that and feeling the truth of it are of course two very different things. We may know that our memories are not necessarily reliable, but they often seem so very definite. Besides, without our memories who exactly are we?
That’s a question beyond the scope of this blog (though if I had to answer I’d say we’re a constellation of cognitive processes with an illusion of continuity, and that the very concept of self is deeply problematic). It’s at the heart though of Julian Barnes’ coolly distant Booker winning novel The Sense of an Ending.
The book opens with a short list of memories. not all of which the as yet unnamed narrator actually saw. Immediately we’re on warning, if one of these memories is imagined rather than real, can any of them be trusted? As the narrator says, “what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.”
From there the novel develops in two reasonably distinct halves. The first is the narrator’s (who we eventually learn is named Tony) memories of his final years at school and his early years at university. The key here is that as a reader we’re not experiencing Tony’s early life directly, we’re experiencing what he remembers it as being like which may not be the same thing at all. This is underlined, time and again, with barely a page passing without Tony/Barnes reminding the reader that none of this can necessarily be trusted (“Later that day – or perhaps another day –”, “Was this their exact exchange? Almost certainly not. Still, it is my best memory of their exchange.”).
A new boy, Adrian, joins the school and becomes a key member of Tony’s small clique of friends. They consider themselves philosophers, intellectual rebels, they look to great art and literature for inspiration and they are convinced as was I and as no doubt were many reading this that they have insights that the old and adult world never knew or has long since forgotten. They look down on those around them with all the haughty certainty of adolescence, and they look forward to lives which whatever they may be will not be like their parents, or so at least they hope.
This was another of our fears: that Life wouldn’t turn out to be like Literature. Look at our parents – were they the stuff of Literature? At best, they might aspire to the condition of onlookers and bystanders, part of a social backdrop against which real, true, important things could happen. Like what? The things Literature was all about: love, sex, morality, friendship, happiness, suffering, betrayal, adultery, good and evil, heroes and villains, guilt and innocence, ambition, power, justice, revolution, war, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, the individual against society, success and failure, murder, suicide, death, God. And barn owls. Of course, there were other sorts of literature – theoretical, self-referential, lachrymosely autobiographical – but they were just dry wanks. Real literature was about psychological, emotional and social truth as demonstrated by the actions and reflections of its protagonists; the novel was about character developed over time.
After school they separate, as school friends tend to do, and Tony goes to university where he meets his first girlfriend, Veronica. It’s the 1960s, but one of the charms of the novel is how it brings out that for most people the 1960s is not the 1960s as we now picture it (just as having grown up in the 1980s I can testify it wasn’t for me much like the 1980s I now see on tv). If the sexual revolution is happening, it’s not happening anywhere near Tony. If people are turning on, tuning in and dropping out they’re not inviting him to do it with them. 1960s England for most is not that different to 1950s England. Our collective memories turn out to be not that reliable either.
The second half of the novel is years later, in the present. Tony is in his 60s now. He’s retired, divorced though still on good terms with his ex-wife, he has a daughter and while they’re not as close as he’d like they get along. He has a grandson he dotes on. His life is calm, comfortable, untroubled and deeply ordinary. That’s how he likes it. His teenage yearnings for more were a product of being a teenager, nothing deeper (“I would never do those things adolescence had dreamt about. Instead, I mowed my lawn, I took holidays, I had my life.”).
Tony’s existence is placid, and then he gets an unexpected bequest from Veronica’s mother who’s recently died and who he’s not heard from since an unsuccessful visit to meet Veronica’s parents decades previously. That leads him to contact Veronica, and to proof that how he remembers those years (and in particular how he remembers what lead up to a particular terrible incident) may not be quite how they actually happened.
How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but – mainly – to ourselves.
I won’t talk more about the plot. What happened is interesting, but it’s not the point. The point is memory, age and the myth of self (Anthony Powell would have liked this book). Back in their schooldays Adrian challenged a history master with the idea that all one can say of history is that “something happened”. Later Adrian quotes what appears to be a French historian named Patrick Lagrange who said that “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation” (what appears because as best I can tell Patrick Lagrange is himself fictional, whether Adrian made him up or Tony misremembers is unknowable).
As a teenager Tony looked forward to an uncertain future. Now he looks back to an uncertain past. He has his account of what happened, but of what use is that? After all, “historians need to treat a participant’s own explanation of events with a certain scepticism.” Tony sets off on a dogged quest to understand what really happened all those years ago. As a narrator though he’s hopelessly compromised. If he can’t trust his own memories, and so we as readers can’t trust his descriptions of the past, how can we trust his perceptions of events now or the conclusions he draws? The whole book becomes slippery, with all that can be relied upon being Tony’s own emotional response. Everything else is, at best, approximate.
To the extent The Sense of an Ending has a weakness it lies in its tone. At the start I called this a coolly distant novel, and that’s in large part because Tony is a rather detached figure (detached from his own life in fact). As Tony is the narrator the book’s nature must follow his, and the result is a book that can at times be hard to love. When Josipovici criticised Barnes, and other contemporary English writers, it was exactly this sort of bloodless text he was arguing against.
Against that is one simple fact. Barnes can write. The book is filled with sentences that are absolute delights, frequently very funny and sometimes cruelly telling. I loved this as a summary of a certain kind of life: “We bought a small house with a large mortgage; I commuted up to London every day.” And similarly this as a description of a certain kind of English town: “one of those suburbs which had stopped concreting over nature at the very last minute, and ever since smugly claimed rural status.” As a final brief example, I thought this line unbearably sad: “I had wanted life not to bother me too much, and had succeeded – and how pitiful that was.”
At the end The Sense of an Ending becomes a sort of detective story, but one in which the solution doesn’t really matter and anyway can never be certain. Tony tries to understand what really happened in his past, how his personal account differs from the truth, and the extent to which he was responsible for what happened. Those are all the wrong questions though. All of them amount to an attempt to fix that which is by its nature fluid, and to ascribe responsibility.
Tony’s investigation therefore becomes a more personal search. His choices are largely behind him. His life is now set in the path it will likely stay in until he dies. He thought he knew what the future held, but it wasn’t as he dreamed. He thought he knew what the past held, but it wasn’t as he remembered. The only certainty left is death, and that before it something happened.
The Sense of an Ending has naturally been the subject of a great many reviews. Some I’d point you to are (in no particular order) by Will of Just William’s Luck, here, Kevin of KevinfromCanada here, John Self of theasylum here, Kerry of Hungry Like the Woolf here, Tom of Tomcat in the Red Room here (and if you don’t know Tom’s blog you should, it’s definitely worth checking out), and just today as I wrote this at whisperinggums here. If I’ve missed your review (and I’m sure I’ve missed some blogs I follow, I’m very late to this book), please let me know in the comments.