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.
36 responses to “some approximate memories which time has deformed into certainty”
Great review Max … as you have seen, I was late to this book too. Love the quotes you selected. Thanks for the link … and now I see some others here so I’ll go check them out.
I must say I don’t have a problem with the tone … it’s a certain style, yes, but it suits the subject matter in a way, I think. And he can certainly write as you say.
Yours is an excellent review. I share your skepticism about there being a coherent “concept of self”. This idea does dovetail nicely with the novel as the artificial construction Tony has of his life is, pretty obviously, patched together from scraps, some of which he has bent out of shape and put in the wrong place entirely. You bring all of this out and the problems of memory very well and, perhaps best, you note that the relative unimportance of “what really happened” to the novel.
I, as Whispering and I think you, thought the “cooly distant” tone was well suited to the subject. And the writing was brilliant. Thanks for reminding me of what I loved about the novel and further illumining some of the ideas inside.
Well I’m going to be even later than you as my copy is still sitting on the shelf. Barnes is a great favourite of mine. Your comments about memory remind me of Tirra Lirra by the River and the acknowledgment that we pick and choose our memories while we construct a silent connective narrative.
I read this Max I think memories are very subjective and like the line from count crows song If dreams are like movies then memories are films about ghosts ,that sums it up well ,all the best stu
My review’s over here, Max. This book was my first experience of Barnes’s work – I had my own reservations over the tone, but generally thought it a very worthwhile read.
WG, I need to read your review properly. I was pleased to see it pop up in my inbox, but didn’t want to read it too closely before finishing mine because when I do that I lose my own voice (if that makes sense).
Kerry, thank you. I enjoyed your review and I do think there’s been perhaps too much focus on “what really happened”. Tony answers that to his own satisfaction, but can any of us really ever know anything for certain? Nice point on how Tony constructs his own life.
Guy, I’m on the Price at the moment which also touches on issues of who we are and of whether our perception of self (and of others) marries well to the reality, and Tirra Lirra is on the cards hopefully for not long after that (my copy arrived this week). I’ll be interested to hear how you feel this compares to other Barnes’. For me I think it’s probably my favourite, though I admit it’s been years since I read the others (and I still have a sneaking preference for his Dan Kavanagh stuff).
David, thanks for the link. I’ll print it out and have a read tomorrow. The tone’s interesitng isn’t it? I think it’s a price he has to pay for the novel he wanted to write. Writing about a disaffected protagonist is difficult without being disaffecting. For me Barnes pulls it off, but it’s necessarily a close-run thing.
I’ll end with an anecdote that got cut from the review. For years I’ve remembered buying my first record player. I was about 13 and rushed home with it (or to it, it’s all got very hazy for reasons I’ll shortly explain). I bought a particular record and played it for my mother and was blown away by how full it sounded. I played it over and over for days.
Recently I wondered what the song was. I remembered the name so I googled it to see who it was by. I found it. It came out when I was 19. Facts contradicted memory.
As I write this I now remember having the memory, but I no longer have the memory directly, because in the light of the discovered fact it’s rather fallen apart. Clearly that couldn’t have happened when I was 13. It must have been years later. Why then was I so excited? I’ve no idea. Also, I now remember having other records when I was younger, before the age of 10 I think or maybe 12. Given that, why was I excited later to get another record player? I have no idea.
That goes to the heart of this book, in fact it was that discovery that prompted me in part to read it now (that and someone at work being the recommending straw that broke my resistant camel’s back). I remembered that whole incident clearly, but also it’s apparent I remembered it wrongly. Whatever it’s significance truly was is lost, and I suspect irrecoverable. Was it even one incident, or several mashed together?
If that’s not true, then is the foundation myth of my life, my discovering music at the age of 14 when I heard the Buzzcocks played on the radio, is that true? I don’t know, and it’s a troubling though. Maybe. If it wasn’t then, it’s become true since.
And yes, I do have a foundation myth of my life, that informs who I am. The very fact I have it suggests to me it’s almost certainly not true, or at least not entirely so.
Tricky stuff, literature.
Stu, it does indeed. Thanks for the comment.
I couldn’t find a review by this at yours, and I had a look. Did you write one? Also, I noticed that though I thought I’d set up a link to you in my blogroll (as I mentioned recently) it hadn’t taken for some reason. I’ve now corrected that and sorry for not noticing sooner.
Thanks for the link dude: I’d completely forgotten that I’d reviewed this book, and just had to re-read my own review. Whoops. So much for my own memory…
Great anecdote Max … and one we could talk about for ages … does it matter what the facts are? In other words, is the important thing the essence of the memory and what it means to you. Julian Barnes says on p2 “If I can’t be sure of the actual events any more, I can at least be true to the impressions those facts left”. Is the important thing the “impressions” and how they’ve affected us or the facts which we’ve forgotten?
BTW I went down a different path with my review, not because I wasn’t interested in teasing out the memory issue in some detail but because the form/style of the novel intrigued me. Trouble is I think I ended up in no man’s land teasing out neither.
I was intrigued by its being a sort of old person’s bildungsroman. I felt it suggests that we think we “come of age” in our teens/twenties and are thenceforth “grown up” but in fact there never is an end to “coming of age”.
I tend to think WG that any halfway decent book has multiple reviews in it. I could have talked much more for example about how the book explores themes of personal identity, or about aging, but memory struck the greatest chord with me. There’s definitely more than one take one can have on the book.
The impressions point is a fair one, but it’s a bit like if you ask someone if they believe something happened to you, and they say they believe that you believe it. Ultimately I think we hunger for some kind of certainty, however unlikely we may be to achieve it. That and it’s a bit disturbing to be forced to face the unreliability of one’s own memories, which is a truth generally known but not felt.
First of all, I was surprised that you bothered with this novel. Secondly, you may have read Josipovici’s fiction – I hope – and it seems to me that anyone who has read Jospovici, Bernhard, or Sebald would see how shallow and superficial this particular Barnes is. The whole inflated and, to my mind, completely unjustified publicity given to Barnes et al is symptomatic of the backwardness of the contemporary British novel. As for the Booker, it tends to be given to mediocre texts. Submittred under an unknown name, The Sense of an Ending would not have got past the cordon of agent gatekeepers, and would have been turned down by publishers.
Well, I read so many positive reviews, then that accident of timing with learning one of my own memories was incorrect, it sort of made sense.
I’ve reviewed two Josiopovici’s here: What Ever Happened to Modernism? and his novel Everything Passes. Comments welcome on both. Clearly he’s an exceptional writer, and it’s an utter indictment of the Booker that I can’t even imagine him getting longlisted let alone short or winning.
That said, Barnes can write. I think he’s on good form here, and I actually prefer this to several of his other books. What’s curious with this one is something I didn’t touch on in the review (or only implicitly in passing), which is how unsubtle at times it seemed to me to be. I felt I was being bashed over the head with the motif of unreliability of memory and the impossibility of truly knowing the past or ourselves, let alone anyone else.
And yet, comment after comment I’ve read on other blogs (rarely the bloggers, usually comments) seem to entirely miss it. So, I may feel Barnes made that too obvious, but clearly he didn’t because many readers didn’t and instead obsess about what really happened in Tony’s past, when of course we can’t ever know that because Barnes ultimately didn’t write it (it’s actually fairly clear cut in the book, but we can’t of course trust what we read and have no direct view of the incidents involved).
If Barnes submitted anonymously I have no doubt he’d not get far, but equally I have no doubt that after three or four books people would be praising him (as happened, for example, with Stephen King when writing as Richard Bachman, or for that matter with Julian Barnes when writing as Dan Kavanagh).
I don’t disagree with you particularly about the Booker. It’s a middlebrow prize. But then it’s a prize for a type of fiction, just as the Clarke awards (SF) are a prize for a type of fiction. Nobody complains when SF novels win the Clarke, why complain when traditional (and ultimately unchallenging) litfic wins the Booker?
‘What’s curious with this one is something I didn’t touch on in the review (or only implicitly in passing), which is how unsubtle at times it seemed to me to be. I felt I was being bashed over the head with the motif of unreliability of memory and the impossibility of truly knowing the past or ourselves, let alone anyone else.’
I agree with that. Besides, the whole thing about the unreliability of memory is such an old hat, a cliche really. I cannot understand all the fuss.
I do not think Booker is for lit fiction; it is for fairly conventional, predictable writing, usually in the boring, social realism mode addressing issues no different from the Hello mag: how people cope with adultery, loss of job, etc. Who cares? Read Hello and the like. Literary fiction should be art. Art is not predictable.
Everything Passes is wonderful. Infinity next month – the literary event of the year! Josipovici should really get the Nobel. They missed Sebald, they should not miss Josipovici. I dream of it happening, not least for the possible shaking up of the literary establishement in this country.
Good points Vesna. Then again one could argue that the mundane is what we live, and that exploring it does not therefore get old. Richard Yates for example. Adultery, loss of job, these things are the stuff of our lives. I’d defend Revolutionary Road as great art for all its about marital problems and the quotidian problems of some pretty comfortable people.
There’s also the question of prose. James Salter writes prose of such beauty that to criticise him for naturalism would seem just to miss the point (though in fairness while a naturalist writer he isn’t locked into the deadening limits of middle class alienation, off the top of my head the three books that come to mind cover mountain climbing, a combat pilot in Korea and an extraordinary work of erotic fantasy and fixation).
Amis, Barnes, McEwan, there is an element where it’s the literary equivalent of French relationship drama cinema. Middle class people with jobs in publishing or something vaguely arts related getting in knots because A slept with B while meanwhile C worries about the onset of middle age. Then again, some of those are very good films.
I have no time for the Nobel, in all honesty I think it’s a rather absurd prize. If Josipovici won it all that would happen would be some wry articles about what an odd year it was for the prize, then we’d all go back to normal.
As I said on, of all places ,twitter if you really want things to change you need to start by adding writers like Cervantes and Sterne to the school syllabus and then waiting 30 years. English language literary fiction is an essentially escapist genre, changing that would require much more than a prize here or there.
I’m delighted to read your focus on the memory aspect of the novel. Like you, I found that aspect to be so pervasive that it almost became a fault. So I have been perplexed that so many commenters on blog reviews of this novel become obsessed with treating it as a whodunit when the author seems quite clear that the book is actually about the fragility and unreliability of memory.
Which does lead to another point that you capture in some of the quotes. Barnes leavens all this with some excellent, cryptic observations of the times — the short quotes you have used illustrate just how precise he is when he does that. As one who is a virtual contemporary of Tony, I wondered from the start if you had to have been there to really appreciate the book. You obviously had no trouble relating your 1980s to Barnes’ 1960s — I wonder if those who are younger face a greater challenge.
On another note, since you like Josipovici, why are so many of his fans (and the man himself sometimes) so mean-spirited when it comes to other authors? It seems to me that literature is a both/and not either/or proposition.
To me that stood out so strongly it risked unbalancing the book, hence the focus. I must admit I do find it mystifying how many though treat it as a mystery to be solved. Barnes didn’t write a direct view of what happened, and that is not remotely an accident.
The 1980s have become an iconic decade, in much the same way the ’60s did. That may have helped, but also I think Barnes is very good at capturing his time in neat slices of prose and it would be doing him a disservice to put my understanding of his point purely down to a vaguely similar experience. I think though if you’d never seen time you’d lived become mythologised it might be a bit harder, but Barnes writes well enough that I suspect that bridge could yet be crossed.
Josipovici’s fans (of which I admit I’m one) and the modernists, it’s like SF actually. Some SF fans resent the fact that literary fiction tends to be seen (mostly by literary fiction enthusiasts) as somehow higher or superior. Litfic wins the big prizes and gets the press attention, while poor old SF must just make do with massively greater sales and an enthusiastic and informed fanbase (the humanity!).
So, some SF fans resent literary fiction. They ask why it gets held as a higher form than SF. It’s of course the wrong question. I continue to strongly hold the view that SF should not apologise for being SF, and that if others look down on it that’s a matter for them which need not particularly trouble those of us who read it (and actually most people who don’t read SF don’t look down on it, they just have no interest in it which is a very different thing).
I do think English language literary fiction has become a little moribund in recent years, the establishment left unchallenged a bit too long. I’m sure that’s happened before, and will happen again. A result though is that more experimental fiction or challenging fiction can struggle to be heard. The modernist, like the SF fan, must press their nose against the glass while the naturalist novel gets press attention and prizes, and the modernist doesn’t even get the consolation of massive sales and numerous fans. The frustration of that experience, of having something to say and being ignored, is I think for many deeply irritating.
To be fair though to Josipovici while his line about Barnes et al was much quoted, it was one paragraph in an entire book. He makes a positive case for what he believes in, not a negative case against what he doesn’t. The fault there was much more the press fuelling cheap controversy than it was anything Josipovici actually said.
As always, you offer a thoughtful and balanced perspective. I am one of those people who does not read SF, simply because it does not speak to my interests. I certainly do not put SF (or its readers) down — if anything, I am delighted that some authors are producing work that appeals to others, even if it doesn’t appeal to me. (Which of course means that I have to hold a grudging respect for Stephenie Meyer as well — I’ll admit that is more of a challenge).
And I take your final point — Josipovici offered an almost throwaway assessment that was quite consistent with the point that he was trying to make. It wasn’t his main point — it just got blown up.
If responses on my blog are any indication, Barnes may have succeeded in bringing literary fiction back into popular prominence — my post on The Sense of an Ending is consistently in the top three. Still trails Mordecai Richler’s Duddy Kravitz as my number one however — you should read Duddy at some point if you have not already.
Sorry, one other point that I meant to make. Both Mrs. KfC and I were impressed at the way that Barnes used some of those one-sentence zingers to bring us (as readers) to a halt. While we were comfortably moving along with the absolute uncertainty and inaccuracy of memory, every few pages there was one of those “dead-on” observations that brought us to a stop: Well, the author sure remembered that one with accuracy, didn’t he? Mrs. KfC particularly liked the one about how women, as they age, go back to wearing their hair the way they did in their youth — she was in the process of trying that and immediately abandoned the project.
I can understand why some younger readers do find the book flat — I’d just say they need to live for a few more years (maybe decades) to appreciate how perceptive Barnes is.
I’ve never had the slightest impression you put SF down Kevin. It just doesn’t interest you, as romance say as a genre doesn’t interest me. Taking that example I actually have no real view on romance fiction, why would I?
I’ll read your Richler review again. It rings a bell but not a loud and clear one.
Nice point on how Barnes can bring you to a halt with one liners, often uncomfortably true one liners.
Returning to the modernist critique point, I had another thought. Some readers strongly prioritise story over style (which isn’t a genuine dichotomy at all of course, but one can prioritise one aspect over another). They tend to genre fiction or more accessible general fiction, where stylistic cleverness (as they’d see it) won’t get in the way of the story.
Some readers, a much smaller number, really not very many at all, don’t care significantly about story. For them style is the key – does the book push the form? Does it do something new, something interesting? Those readers will naturally trend toward more experimental or modernist fiction.
Most litfic fans I think do prioritise style, but still tend to find story important. Story here needn’t mean simply plot, it could mean “character developed over time”. Story is immensely powerful, and some literary novels are very much a celebration of the power of story. Modernism though for me is not about story, it’s more about language and experience and in that realm story becomes a form of lie.
I think that will always be a minority taste because the urge for story is so profoundly strong in most people. I also think literary fiction will always be a minority taste because for most people visible style interferes with story, and thus is an impediment. Genre as a rule does straight story better than literary fiction.
That doesn’t mean style doesn’t matter. But for straight delivery of story the style needs must be efficient, rather than beautiful. For most literary fiction story and style must to some extent be balanced. For modernist fiction story I think may actually be something of a problem.
All of which is far too categorical, but being more nuanced would take even more space than this already has.
I think your assessment of the weighting between story and style as it progresses from genre, through lit-fic, to the modernists (or post-modernists, or whatever we are supposed to call them) is 100-per-cent dead-on — you might not have defined the buckets perfectly, but the descriptions are apt. Nuance might require abandoning the law and heading into the academy.
I think the idea of buckets (perhaps spectrum would be a better concept) is useful — I’d like to think that I park myself (and a book) at a particular spot on the spectrum depending on my reading mood. My most comfortable and rewarding home is in the lit-fic area (perhaps tending towards the modernists) but I think an active mind should be willing to explore a broader swath. Perhaps that is what raises my hackles with some (certainly not all) of the genre and modernist commenters — they seem to feel a need to defend to the end their particular slice, instead of explaining why it is a vital part of a much more varied literary cake.
Great review, I should read it.
The concept of memory fascinates me. I’ve always wondered how policemen could rely on testimonies, I’m not sure I’d be able to recall significant details about a scene, an episode. Sometimes the trial is years after. How can you swear you remember it exactly enough?
I’m also very interested in how other people’s memories can become our memories, like the stories your parents tell you about when you were little. Some things that I don’t remember became part of myself because they told me about it. I also think that memories are also a reason why losing a parent is so painful: they take away with them the part of yourself that was in their memory. I’m glad I’m not an only child: my sister is the only living person that has lived in the same house at the same time with the same parents. She’s the depositary of our common past just as I am for her.
Fascinating discussion about the style and whether he deserved the Booker Prize or not. You know what I think about literary prizes: not worth following or bothering. (I admire the bloggers who do shadow literary prizes but would never commit to such a task).
I’m one of those attached to the story but I don’t recognize myself in this:
“But for straight delivery of story the style needs must be efficient, rather than beautiful. For most literary fiction story and style must to some extent be balanced. For modernist fiction story I think may actually be something of a problem.”
I want it all: beautiful style and good story. For me, style without story is a nice empty envelope and story without style is just plain boring or even unsufferable.
Let’s clarify my first sentence: I’ve read your review and I should read the book. 🙂
Witness evidence is notoriously unreliable. There’s been some very good academic studies on it I understand. It’s very persuasive though, and often unreliable as it can be (and I think juries are usually warned about that) it’s often all we have.
I like prizes to the extent they flag books I wouldn’t otherwise have looked at, and that are worth looking at. Simple as that really. Many fail that test, and there’s none (not even those that pass it) where I’d do the follow a prize thing. It always seems a recipe for reading a ton of books you don’t actually like to find the few you do. I’m glad others do though. It’s sort of a public service. That sounds potentially sarcastic, but it’s not meant that way. The prize bloggers read books they know they may not remotely enjoy or find interesting so as to let the rest of us know which books on the ilst really merit attention.
Your last para is exactly what I was getting at by what I think of as literary fiction. The quoted section is what people who primarily pursue genre are often looking for I think (though the point can be overstated).
Fine review Max and a great discussion as well. It’s fascinating to see the volume and type of attention this book has received. It has taken on various lives of its own which I cannot imagine Barnes would have predicted or intended: the obsession over the plot and “meaning” of the book; the prizes; the lit-fic debate. I think the question of reliability of memory that you highlight is the most interesting, and in the sense that Barnes has conveyed the uncertainties and discontinuities of Tony’s record of his life he (Barnes) seems to have achieved something worthwhile. Like you say, a lot of those commenting on this in the blogosphere seem to have missed that element.
Max, I read this some time ago and, if my memory serves, I was significantly less generous in my thoughts than the majority of other readers. The extraordinary unreliability of the protagonist’s memory stretched my credulity a little too far, although I did wonder if it was less an issue with memory and more to do with the unreliable narrator. I expect unreliability in a narrator and don’t consider it a theme in itself, or worth highlighting. My grouchy response should illustrate that I am, alas, plenty old enough to appreciate memory issues in general!
On the other hand I could enjoy this Barnes just for the phrasing, which is, at times, superb.
Leroy, it does generate good discussion this book doesn’t it? That in itself speaks well to it. The focus on plot mystifies me, because it’s so evidently (as I say above I thought at times unsubtly) not about that, but so it goes. The uncertainties and discontinuities to use your rather nice phrase are where the meat lies.
Sarah, I didn’t find his unreliability too difficult because he was so much older than when the events took place and had so little corroboration for so long. For me it wasn’t so much that he was an unreliable narrator, which is trite, as to why he was unreliable which was more universal.
The phrasing is at times superb as you say. His critics would I think argue that’s where the sterility (as they see it) lies – perfect phrasing but in their view nothing more.
Very interesting commentary on this book, Max. I found it interesting how you tied some of your thoughts on memory to themes in the novel. I think that you may be on to something with your assessment of memory and conciseness as being lots of processes adding up to something of an illusion of “self.” Have you by chance read Daniel C. Dennett’s “Consciousness Explained”? In it, Dennett explores the scientific and philosophical points involving a similar train of reasoning.
I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the high quality of many online reviews of this book and of the discussions taking place in the comments. I don’t find this typical of blogs or comments. So perhaps that speaks well of the book.
I still want to know what “really” happened despite understanding what you’ve written about memory. In trying to understand my motives I think it’s just worrying that I may have missed something obvious but probably not as I’ve not found any of the odder theories persuasive.
I am interested in any explanations as to why Tony’s presence upsets the young Adrian
Glad you found it interesting. I have read a Dennett, and I think it might well be that one. Susan Blackmore has made similar arguments. I think it’s a fairly persuasive argument he makes regarding how consciousness works, despite which I’m not a huge fan as I find the neo-Darwinists too prone to letting culture war politics inform their science (I’ve seen studies arguing Darwinian justification for girls liking pink, ignoring the fact it’s a very recent phenomenon only found in some cultures and therefore plainly not genetic at all). Dennett however does have good scientific points to make, which sadly hasn’t been true of Dawkins now for at least a couple of decades.
PeggySu, I’ll come back to your query separately.
THIS COMMENT CONTAINS SPOILERS
PeggySu, at one level the book doesn’t have answers, in that Barnes doesn’t write what actually happened making it necessarily unknowable. At another level though it is I think broadly explained at least to Tony’s satisfaction.
Fact 1: When Adrian hooked up with Veronica Tony wrote them his devastating letter.
Fact 2: In his letter Tony advised Adrian to talk to Veronica’s mother.
Fact 3: Adrian committed suicide.
Fact? 4: Veronica’s mother had a child by Adrian. This is certainly Tony’s conclusion and it seems to fit what we see.
That much is made fairly clear. The trouble is causation. Is it really satisfactory to say that had Tony not sent his letter Adrian wouldn’t have slept with Veronica’s mother? That seems to be Veronica’s answer (though we never hear directly what she really thinks, and Tony consistently misunderstands her), but it’s weak because it allows Adrian and Veronica’s mother no agency of their own. Would Adrian never have talked to Veronica’s mother without the letter? That seems unlikely.
In a sense this is like real life. If this story were true, and we knew all of facts 1 to 4 to be absolutely correct, could we even then say Tony caused it? If this were within your own family could you even know that? Did Adrian commit suicide for philosophical reasons, or because he couldn’t face the pram in the hall? There is no way of knowing. Even Adrian might not have known.
So, what happened, Tony wrote a terrible letter, Adrian had an affair with Victoria’s mother, she had a handicapped child and Adrian killed himself. Why? Why is like real life, we can ascribe blame as we wish, but ultimately all we can say is that something happened.
Which incident are you thinking of in your final sentence again?
SPOILERS END HERE
Max, thank you for the clear analysis. I understand now that the question is not WHAT happened but whether there is a causal connection in the chain of events. Now to the question in my final sentence.
The last time Tony is in the pub and “young” Adrian is there with other people in his group and their helpers, one of the helpers sits down at Tony’s table and tells Tony that his presence upsets Adrian and that it’s not surprising as Adrian has had a tough time lately. Tony promises not to come to the pub anymore. (An ending?) Why Adrian would be upset is not explained; he’s apparently not upset by strangers in general. He did first see Tony with “Mary” but that’s the only obvious thing that’s unusual about Tony from Adrian’s perspective UNLESS there is something about Tony’s appearance.
I don’t have the text in front of me right now, but I don’t think one need reach for Tony’s appearance. Wasn’t Mary upset when young Adrian saw her with Tony? Wasn’t she annoyed with Tony? YA wouldn’t I suspect be comfortable with someone who upset Mary.
Also, Tony hangs around staring at the poor boy. If you picture YA as a five year old for a moment, Tony’s some weird old guy who basically stalks him and keeps staring without saying anything much. I can see why that might prove upsetting.
There may be more to it than that (Mary could even have said something to him, there are other possibilities), ultimately we can’t know because the text doesn’t reveal it.
Just in case you’ve subscribed to comments I thought I’d follow up. I checked your query. Tony doesn’t meet YA with “Mary”, so I’d misremembered that, but the text is absolutely clear that it’s not something in Tony’s appearance. He introduces himself to YA who is interested and friendly until Tony says he is a friend of “Mary’s” – it is only then that YA finds him disturbing. It’s a context issue, nothing in his appearance. Hope that helps.
Finished Sense of an Ending last night and could not quiet my mind. I re-read half the book (astonished at tight, brilliant writing that reads totally different 2nd time), then dove into blogs (past bedtime) and was delighted to find most insightful comments here from Max and company. I agree with Max’s Spoiler Section facts, including that Veronica’s mother gave birth to Adrian2. I believe the facts are as presented, and not a coded mystery (broken egg, etc.) because the main theme of book isn’t about sexual amnesia or repressed memories, but about how our sense of self depends on how we “write” our own stories, and Tony’s self-story was about being average to dull, until he read the letter he’d written and sent to Adrian and Veronica forty years ago. His hateful letter completely explodes the story he’d created about his life and then his self-story is further eroded when he finally comprehends Mary’s/Veronica’s real life vs. his projected fantasy. The book doesn’t judge but allows us to see how immature, inexperienced and humiliated Tony was over the course of his weekend trip to Veronica’s family, and how those feelings of youthful inadequacy shaped his selective memories. On first reading, we empathize with Tony and feel his shame. On second reading, the reader sees how Tony’s shame and humiliation mis-informed his memories and led to actions with Veronica that he still struggled to understand forty years later. The book seems to suggest we might all consider a time in our personal history when we weren’t our best, and we either forget or minimize bad behavior and actions (whitewash). In this case, there is a written document to prove the lapse (which really supports either not putting such thoughts in writing, or write it down, then shred it or burn it, never send it).
What fascinates me most about reading the book – the reader experiences the same fuzzy lack of clarity about Tony’s experience that he does – obviously because Tony is the narrator. But there are multiple layers to the uncertainty. There are Tony’s fuzzy memories, some clearer than others, some completely lost as he reminds us, many corrected and shifting as he absorbs what the inheritance means and what Veronica’s reality is. And then there are the reader’s experiences, first believing one story, then realizing your own feelings were just “version 1”, then reading it again and feeling something totally different – mimicking Tony’s experience, and still realizing that as a reader, you really don’t know the whole story, but you have what you think it is the “true story”, wanting to learn more and knowing that’s all there is. Then I found myself actively remembering my own past experiences and wondering how “real” my memories are vs. memories of, for one example, my ex-husband or former in-laws, or as another example, realizing at a high school reunion how my perceptions that shaped impressions of people may not be so accurate after all. That’s the magic and brilliance of this short book – showing us first how Tony’s memories and actions create a specific sense of self, then showing us how fragile anyone’s sense of self really is, including the reader’s. Tony’s self-created memories change several times and change fast – in a split second. We experience with Tony the fragility of memory, not only for him but for ourselves.
Suzanne, exactly, thank you. Did you see my anecdote about the record I remembered buying, then discovered I couldn’t have bought when I thought I had? That for me is the heart of the book, that sudden questioning not only of Tony’s past but of one’s own. It’s a book about memory as narrative, and narrative of course is a work of creative fiction.
The high school reunion does strike me as rich fodder for that. I met once a kid I knew at school in a cafe. Just by chance. He came over and started reminiscing about our good times. My recollection was that we had never been friends and that he had bullied me. His recollection was of some playful high jinks between us but overall a shared camaraderie. In the absence of time travel who knows what’s true? Even with time travel would we know? Somethings happened, we placed interpretations on them, time passed and interpretations perhaps changed or perhaps didn’t.
Have you seen the film Rashomon? If not you totally should. It’s an amazing piece of cinema for one thing but it’s also absolutely on point for another.
Anyway, great comment, so again thanks.
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