Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes

The Sense of an Ending is an exploration of memory--how we construct it, how we revise it, and how it affects the way we view ourselves and our lives. The narrator is Tony Webster, a divorced and retired arts administrator who claims to be "not very interested in my schooldays." And yet those schooldays come to dominate his thinking when he receives a surprising letter from a solicitor--he has received a small bequest, 500 pounds and the diary of his long-dead friend Adrian. The bequest was made by the mother of his first serious girlfriend, a woman he met only once decades previously.

This strange event causes him to reflect on his days in the sixth form (final years of secondary school), when he and his friends Alex and Colin befriended the new boy at school, Adrian Finn. Adrian seems to be more intelligent and more philosophical than the three buddies, and they not only invite him into their circle, they admire him greatly. But their friendship withers as they enter life after school. Adrian goes off to Cambridge, while Tony heads to a less prestigious university. There, he falls for Veronica Ford, a secretive girl with whom he seems to have little in common. He introduces her to his friends and she takes him home for a weekend--neither event is very successful, but the weekend with her family sticks in his mind as being one of the most uncomfortable of his life. When Tony and Veronica break up, Tony receives a letter from Adrian saying that he is now dating Veronica. Tony responds first with a postcard indicating a blase response, second with a poison pen letter cursing Adrian and Veronica. Less than a year later, news of Adrian's suicide reaches Tony.

Tony seems to admire the philosophical rationale that Adrian built for his suicide, but he claims to have forgotten all about the events involving Veronica and Adrian as he built his rather average life--working, getting married, having a daughter, getting divorced, becoming a grandfather, and retiring. But when the bequest brings the events of so many years ago to the fore, he becomes somewhat obsessed with what the diary might reveal and how its revelations might change his memories. But Veronica has the diary and won't part with it. His campaign to wrest the diary from her reveals some of Veronica's secrets and does indeed change his view of the past--whether it changes how he sees himself is an open question as the brief novel ends.

Julian Barnes won the 2011 Mann Booker award for The Sense of an Ending and, perhaps particularly for readers my age, it offers a siren's call to consider the past we have created for ourselves.

Favorite passages:
We live in time, it bounds us and defines us, and time is supposed to measure history, isn't it? But if we can't understand time, can't grasp its mysteries of pace and progress, what chance do we have with history--even our own small, personal, largely undocumented piece of it?

Who was it said that memory is what we thought we'd forgotten? And it ought to be obvious to us that time doesn't act as a fixative, rather as a solvent. But it's not convenient--it's not useful--to believe this; it doesn't help us get on with our lives; so we ignore it.

. . . why should we expect age to mellow us? If it isn't life's business to reward merit, why should it be life's business to give us warm, comfortable feelings towards its end? What possible evolutionary purpose could nostalgia serve?

1 comment:

  1. The most important event in the novel ostensibly appears to be the fact that Adrian started going out with Tony's ex-girlfriend, Veronica, during their final year at different universities and, encouraged by Veronica, sought Tony's benediction of the relationship. The reply sent by Tony is dealt with fairly obliquely in the first part of the novella ("As far as I remember, I told him pretty much what I thought of their joint moral scruples.") But then a photocopy of the letter falls into his hands over forty years later, and this time is given reproduced in full. It is one of the most devastatingly cruel letters imaginable: sour grapes at their most unpleasantly acidic.

    And it seems that most of the narrator's later disillusionment and remorse revolves around that incident. Except that he is, towards the end, forced to start making sense of something which he had never suspected...