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Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Book Advent Calendar (Day Two) - "The Sense of an Ending" by Julian Barnes

It's the second day of my book advent calendar so we're at the second letter of the alphabet.  This is Barnes' most recent book which won the 2011 Man Booker Prize.
Day Two:  The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
5 Stars 
This novel is divided into two parts. The first part is Anthony Webster's memoir of his senior high school year and first years in university in the 1960s. He has three close friends, the most memorable being Adrian Finn who becomes the philosopher of the clique. Webster also chronicles his first serious relationship with a woman, Veronica Ford. The second part of the book takes place 40 years later; the narrator is retired, but his "peaceable" life is disturbed when a bequest from Veronica's mother forces him to examine his past, a past that includes the suicide of Adrian.

The novel is a meditation on the mutability of memory. From the beginning Webster mentions the fact that "what you end up remembering isn't always the same as what you witnessed" (3). He admits that his memories are approximate; he can't be certain of actual events but only of the impressions of events: "That's the best I can manage" (4).

The interplay of time and memory is examined. Time can deform approximate memories into certainty (4), but people should remember that "time doesn't act as a fixative, rather as a solvent" (63). "Time . . . give us enough time and our best-supported decisions will seem wobbly, our certainties whimsical" (93).

"We live in time . . . 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?" (60). All of this makes clear that Webster is an eminently unreliable narrator. He admits that he would have difficulty attesting to his reliability and truthfulness (45) and his memories might not "stand up to cross-examination very well" (119). The telling of one's history is complicated by the tendency of humans to self-redact: "How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? . . . our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but - mainly - to ourselves" (95). Webster admits to writing a person out of his life story and expunging a humiliating failure (69) and finding a way to think of someone that produces less discomfort (80). Obviously the reader needs "to treat [this] participant's own explanation of events with a certain scepticism" (18).

A pivotal weekend in Webster's young adulthood illustrates the theme of the malleability of memory over time. Veronica took Webster to meet her family. He remembers a very uncomfortable weekend; he felt patronised, scrutinised and manipulated (64). Later, in the face of fresh perspectives, he must "disengage those familiar memory-loops" (112) and reconstruct the visit. He begins "remembering forgotten things" (120). Gradually an alternative version of the watershed weekend emerges, one which challenges his core beliefs about himself and others. In the end, "there is unrest. There is great unrest' (150).

Clearly Webster is a dynamic character, but the epiphany does not come until the very end. Throughout the book, he attributes failings to others; for example, he states that Veronica is unable "to imagine anyone else's feelings or emotional life" (96). This statement comes from someone who feels no guilt about a relationship breakup because "No one had got pregnant, no one had got killed" (39). Only later does he realize his own insensitivity: "I'd said to myself: But nobody got killed. I'd just been thinking about Veronica and me. I hadn't considered Adrian" (92). He jests at his "chippily foisting bogus theories" (44) but only slowly starts to realize the extent of his own self-deception: "I wondered if I'd been awkward, pushy, selfish. Not if, how" (101). Veronica repeatedly tells Webster that "'You just don't get it, do you? You never did, and you never will'" (126) and "'You still don't get it. You never did, and you never will'" (144). In the end, he does admit, "'I'm sorry. I just didn't get it'" (146).

Another theme is that of "the question of responsibility: whether there's a chain of it, or whether we draw the concept more narrowly" (104). Webster wonders whether he shaped his memories to exculpate himself and ascribe responsibility to others: "have I remembered it this way to make it seem so, and to apportion blame?" (35). It is only at the end that he comes to a true understanding of his responsibility in certain events: "[He] looked at the chain of responsibility. [He] saw [his] initial in there" (149) and concludes he "deserved shunning" (139). In the end he concludes he has "a swathe of [his] past to re-evaluate, with nothing but remorse for company" (140) and wonders, "what else have I done wrong?" (149).

The book is also a meditation on life and aging. Webster examines his life and realizes he did not take charge of his life: "We muddle along, we let life happen to us, we gradually build up a store of memories. There is the question of accumulation, . . . the simple adding up and adding on of life. And . . . there is a difference between addition and increase" (88). He is forced to ask, "Had my life increased, or merely added to itself? This was the question . . . There had been addition - and subtraction - in my life, but how much multiplication?" (88). He realizes he had settled for "passive peaceableness which he had first called happiness and later contentment" (88). The traits he sees in himself do not make him happy: "But time . . . how time first grounds us and then confounds us. We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imagined we were being responsible but were only being cowardly. What we called realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things rather than facing them" (93). In the end, he decides, "Average, that's what I'd been . . . The word resounded. Average at life; average at truth, morally average" (100) and now "[he's] just stuck with what [he's] got" (103). He views life as a disappointment: "Sometimes I think the purpose of life is to reconcile us to its eventual loss by wearing us down, by proving, however long it takes, that life isn't all it's cracked up to be" (105). He suggests that "'Every day is Sunday' - that wouldn't make a bad epitaph" (62) for him.

In the end not all questions are answered. Is Webster's history the lies of the victor, the self-delusions of the defeated or just the memories of the survivor, "neither victorious nor defeated" (56)? "'[W]e need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is put in front of us'" (12) but do we really know Webster's history? Readers who dislike indeterminate endings will be dissatisfied, but the lack of certainty is appropriate considering the themes. "'"History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation"'" (17). Webster yearns for a tidy life - "I aim for tidiness . . . I don't like mess, and I don't like leaving a mess" (68) - but life is essentially untidy.

This book is a true example of interpretive literature; it is both entertaining and instructive. Despite its brevity, it provides much material for thought. The plot is interspersed with Webster's soliloquies, meanderings full of philosophical insights. In the vein of Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach and Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, it is a book worthy of at least one re-read.