Saturday, June 29, 2013

Julian Barnes - The Sense of an Ending

Nostalgia, the tricks of memory, the subjectivity of history, the relativity of time - these are the themes of The Sense of an Ending, the Booker-winning short novel by Julian Barnes.

Tony Webster has had what would seem like a normal life, if somewhat staid. He says of it, "It's been interesting to me, though I wouldn't complain or be amazed if others found it less so." 

Now sixty-something, he looks back upon his life - or rather, certain aspects of it. He describes his school-boy friendship with Adrian Finn - a boy far more intelligent than him, a frequent quoter of Camus, somebody who thought deeply about moral choices and courage. He also looks back on his relationship with his first girlfriend Veronica Finn - the long courtship and the eventual breakup.

More than anything else, the novel is about the tricks that memory plays upon all of us. As we age, memories grow less grey, more black-and-white. Good things become great, and bad things become revolting. Memory gets stuck in the same reel over and over again, and we frequently forget or mis-remember details. And then something - a chance running into somebody, or perhaps an unplanned visit to a place of personal importance - makes memory run on a different track, and we remember subtle nuances and details that we had chosen to forget. 

Webster's journey is similar. In the first part of the book, he tells us what he remembers of his relationships with Adrian and Veronica. And then, in part two, he is indirectly reminded of Veronica again, ruminates on some of the events of the time, and discovers details that he hadn't previously known. He is forced to correct some of his own memories, to reconsider his own feelings about both Adrian and Veronica. He is forced to admit that he may have been overly charitable to himself in his memories. 

It's fascinating to see this evolution happen. As Webster uncovers layer after layer of emotion, works through all the memories he had repressed (especially of his relationship with Veronica), it's like seeing a Russian doll being systematically un-nested to finally reveal the true kernel of truth inside it. Or perhaps it's the reverse that's happening - a gradual nesting of smaller half-truths inside the larger reality. Because in this case the "truth" Webster has told himself for forty years is the smallest and pettiest truth, more lies than otherwise. The reality is so large that it takes Webster many weeks to comprehend it.

Also pervading the book is a sense of - remorse, perhaps? Initially, Webster claims to be content with the way he has lived his life. But later, he contrasts Adrian's promising youth with his own uneventful life, and concludes that he hasn't really "lived" his life. He didn't take charge of his own life, he never went out and claimed it, he side-stepped most of its challenges. 

Webster also ruminates a lot on life and old age and relationships. In fact, I felt like noting some of these so that I could keep coming back to them. Maybe I'll put some of them up here in the days to come.
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2 comments:

Igirit said...

Yes, I kept noting down so many thoughts from this book too!
Also made me think about how one needs to be much older (and wiser?) to be able to write a book with as much depth packed into it as this one...

Devika Rajeev said...

Yes, I was thinking the same thing. No younger writer would be able to authentically talk about some of these things. Many of those thoughts feel like they are the author's thoughts that he's expressing through Tony.