Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Julian Barnes, "The Sense of an Ending"

– Vintage Canada, 2012 ISBN 978-0-307-36082-3 ; 150 p.


Read from November 19th to 30th 2015

My rating:



“How far do the limits of responsibility extend?”

How often are we found guilty (not necessarily by the others but even by ourselves) of not getting it? Of sleep-walking through our life and others’? Of not stopping to think then and conveniently forgetting afterwards? The drama of Tony Webster, the narrator of Julian Barnes’ amazing novella The Sense of an Ending, the drama of the auto sufficiency in mediocrity and of mild regrets of what-could-have-been-if-onlys, is so familiar that it could easily be ours. As so could his hic jacet(s):

I could have used the phrase as an epitaph on a chunk of stone or marble: ‘Tony Webster – He Never Got It’. But that would be too melodramatic, even self-pitying. How about ‘He’s On His Own Now’? That would be better, truer. Or maybe I’ll stick with: ‘Every Day Is Sunday’.

Like any essential reading, Julian Barnes’ book dares us to search not only for the truths hidden in the writing itself, but also for the truth hidden in ourselves and in the world, for the novella raises at least three questions: a moral one: to what extent are we responsible for the others’ destiny? a philosophical one: to what extent is memory able to beat time? and an aesthetical one: to what extent life imitates art? Every one of the three subsequent to Adrian’s question I entitled my review with: “How far do the limits of responsibility extend?”


On the first question is built the story, for little by little the narrator becomes aware of a moral responsibility for events he never thought he had any part in. He starts remembering his past, dismissing all collateral information with a quick “this is not part of the story” remark, in order to re-assemble, little by little, not one, but two puzzles which seem in the beginning only tangential, two variants of the well-known love triangle: Tony and Veronica’s story as the narrator remembers it followed by Adrian and Veronica’s story as the narrator reconstructs it. 

Both stories, which happened some forty years ago and seemed long forgotten are unexpectedly revived by a peculiar legacy: Veronica’s mother leaves Tony the diary of Adrian, his friend who committed suicide about the time of the events, together with 500 pounds. But Veronica manages somehow to seize the diary and refuses to hand it to Tony, so the latter is forced to reconstruct the past from his imperfect recollections and a single page of the diary Veronica photocopied for him and which contains an apparently incomprehensible equation with two variants whose unknowns will be revealed only in the end: “b = s – v x/+ a1 or a2+v+a1 x s = b”. The unfinished sentence at the bottom of the page: “So for instance if Tony…” opens not only a stream of what-ifs but also of what-really-happened possibilities, both for the narrator and the reader.

Therefore, Tony finds himself involved in which seems in the beginning to be a quest for recuperating his legacy and will become in the end a quest for the truth of his past, sanctioning his memories with memories and documents from others, having ghastly revelation of his own behaviour while unearthing things he’d voluntarily forgotten:

My younger self had come back to shock my older self with what that self had been, or was, or was sometimes capable of being. 

In this quest of his true self, he is finally forced to assume moral responsibility for everything he had carefully buried in order not to face the cruel truth that he had wasted his life: 

I had lost the friends of my youth. I had lost the love of my wife. I had abandoned the ambitions I had entertained. I had wanted life not to bother me too much, and had succeeded – and how pitiful that was.

The merciless moral introspection leads to sombre philosophical meditations about the fragility of the human mind and the unreliability of memory that accompany the narrative all the way, translating the individual into general by doubting the veracity of both personal and universal history and mocking the pretence of humanity to freeze time into acknowledged history, since “…what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.” 

Time forever humiliates History, leaving behind mere shreds of facts that promise a story whose veracity can never be guaranteed. And this is true for self-history also, as the individual memory is as feeble as the collective one:

Even if you have assiduously kept records – in words, sound, pictures – you may find that you have attended to the wrong kind of record-keeping. What was the line Adrian used to quote? ‘History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of the memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.’

Finally, the aesthetic question despoils Oscar Wilde’s sentence of its witticism, loading it with tragic accents: if man has a way of his own to get rid of his unpleasant memories and present himself as he would have liked to be seen, then the real and fictional narrators are equally unreliable be it in diaries, autobiographies, memoirs or novels:

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. 

Consequently, what is art either than a mise en abîme of life, or, to employ Plato’s less flattering phrase, an imitation of the imitation of the imitation? In the first pages of the book, Robson foreshadows an Adrian modelled by a real Adrian, all of them illustrating in their own way Camus’ statement that suicide is the acknowledgement that life is not worth living. Human beings often sanction themselves according to some obscure aesthetical criteria, and when they don’t they are rejected as peculiar or boring:

What was the point of having a situation worth of fiction if the protagonist didn’t behave as he would have done in a book? 

There is no such thing as the confusion between ethic and aesthetic, fiction and reality, life and art. Every one of them is governed by the big lie of the wishful thinking. Or so the narrator believes, even in the end, when he seems to finally assume his life. For what is the “great unrest “ he is talking about other than variants of an always pliable truth?

There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest.

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