Monday, August 27, 2012

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes


On the face of it, Julian Barnes’ Man Booker Prize winner, The Sense of an Ending, is not only a very short novel, it is also a very simple one. But then one might say that Barnes whole point in the novel is that no part of so-called history is to be taken on its face. Every life is more complicated than it seems, and memory a flimsy and unreliable guide even to our own lives, let alone the lives of those around us.

The story begins as one of three boys together at a boarding school: Tony, Colin, and Alex, who are then joined by a fourth, Adrian Finn. It is Tony who tells the story, but it Adrian who awakens the other three, and in a sense catapults them into their lives. 
In those days, we imagined ourselves as being kept in some kind of holding pen, waiting to be released into our lives. And when the moment came, our lives—and time itself—would speed up. How were we to know that our lives had in any case begun, that some advantage had already been gained, some damage already inflicted? Also, that our release would only be into a larger holding pen, whose boundaries would be at first indiscernible. 
Adrian is the brightest of the boys, and also the most serious. While the original three seem simply to use their cleverness to get by, Adrian is already deeply engaged. One of their teachers raises a question central to the novel, “What is history?” Adrian’s response seems at first as flippant as the offhand answers of the others, but turns out to be anything but flippant.
“History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.” 
The first half of this short book takes the boys through boarding school, and the reader gets a perceptive look at the sexual insecurities of teenage boys who are anxious to meet girls, but unsure about what they expect or even want from them. Although the four boys pledge to remain close forever, in fact as they drift into their post-boarding school lives, different schools, different professions, they also drift from one another. Tony, the narrator, has a brief and perplexing relationship with a girl, Veronica, who then becomes involved with Adrian. Although Tony exited the relationship before Adrian hooks up with Veronica, he nevertheless manages to feel betrayed by both, with mild reservations about whether his reading is a just one. “Again, I must stress that this is my reading now of what happened then. Or rather, my memory now of my reading then of what was happening at the time.”

Abruptly, surprisingly, the reader is informed that Adrian, the thinker, the serious one, commits suicide at twenty-two, having left an enigmatic, though existentially lucid note of explanation. Book One concludes with Tony grown up, married and divorced, his child also grown, and now looking back on his life as complete and, if not sensational, nevertheless satisfactory. So why a book Two at all? The slice of life novel seems complete, well written, entertaining if not extraordinary. But of course it is Book Two that re-raises all the questions about history, and shows graphically just where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacy of documentation. 

Although I have no intention of giving away the mysteries introduced in Book Two, it is this second looking back that makes this a profound novel. Tony, in his retirement, continues to read history, though he finds himself more interested in the histories of Greece and Rome than with those of his own time. 

Perhaps I just feel safe with the history that’s been more or less agreed upon. Or perhaps it’s that same paradox again: the history that happens underneath our noses ought to be the clearest, and yet it’s the most deliquescent. 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?

A letter, along with a relatively small amount of money bequeathed him from an unlikely source, causes Tony to look again at his own life and to see how that lovely word, ‘deliquescent’ applies to his history. Indeed, the picture he has, the story he has told himself over and over until it has become solid and clear, begins to dissolve, to become liquid. Everything begins to shift; all that was in focus blurs. Nothing is as it had seemed. Not simply in Tony’s life, but for all of us who step back to take another look. 
It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age: when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others.
While Book Two is what transforms this book from simply a well-told slice-of-life story into a philosophically profound piece, when I finished the book, I still found myself puzzled by all the attention it has received. Is this really a Booker Prize sort of novel? But after letting it percolate for a bit, I picked it up again, looking back on it a second time, much as Tony looks again at his own life, and this time I was struck with its depth. I now think it is much more than a well told story; I think you will too.

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