Memory shapes who we are or, more accurately, it provides points of reference by which we can claim some understanding of ourselves. Individual memories accumulate like geological strata and have a formative function in accounting for a person. Memories place us within history, assure us that we are not isolated monads. Early memories (our first friendships, our first love affair and so on) have a particular potency. Yet, our memories are rarely reliable accounts of a particular event, let alone accurate descriptions of the person we are. The process of remembering is a slippery affair. It can be partial, prejudiced, tainted with historical imperfections and the desire to reinvent ourselves in the best possible light. As Julian Barnes writes in his latest book, The Sense of an Ending:
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.
Tony Webster, the narrator in The Sense of the Ending, is a man in his late sixties who has led an unremarkable life, someone “who had neither won nor lost, but just let life happen to him”. “What did I know of life?” he wonders at the end of the novel. It is a question familiar to many of us.
A mysterious letter makes him revisit his schoolboy friendships with a gang of three boys who were joined by a fourth, Adrian Finn, who possessed a laser-sharp mind. In a history lesson, Finn challenges the teacher about the causes of the First World War: “That’s one of the central problems of history, isn’t it, sir? The question of subjective versus objective interpretation, the fact that we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us.”
With the passage of time, the bonds of boyhood friendship unravel and the friends lose contact. Webster marries and divorces and works in arts administration. But, he cannot shake off the memory of his first girlfriend, Veronica, whose family he spent an awkward weekend with. In the end, Veronica dumped him for Finn. Yet, when Webster learns that Finn committed suicide and left him his diary, the past returns with a renewed vibrancy. Finn, Veronica and that weekend begin to acquire new, unsettling meanings. The novel becomes an investigation into the way memory can betray us and can have the property of psychological quicksand. In Webster's case, it is the surfacing of new facts that makes him revise long-held versions of the past that he held to be “true”.
The question Barnes is interested in is how does one interpret the past and one’s involvement in it. Can we rely on memory alone? Is the way we remember figures from our past accurate or is it riddled with the woodworm of falsity? Webster reflecting on Adrian’s early death muses:
When you are in your twenties, even if you’re confused and uncertain about your aims and purposes, you have a strong sense of what life itself is, and of what you are in life, and might become. Later...later there is more uncertainty, more overlapping, more backtracking, more false memories. Back then, you can remember your short life in its entirety. Later, the memory becomes a thing of shreds and patches. It’s a bit like the black box aeroplanes carry to record what happens in a crash. If nothing goes wrong, the tape erases itself. So if you do crash, it’s obvious why you did; if you don’t, then the log of your journey is much less clear.
The Sense of an Ending has all the tension of a psychological thriller and the final denouement makes the reader question everything he has read in the previous 150 pages. It is a page turner (an intelligent read for any summer holiday), but one filled with unsettling ideas and insights. A lucid and provocative novel that will stay in my memory for a long time.
The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes, Jonathan Cape, 2011