Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on September 20, 2011

History is that certainty produced at the point where imperfections of memory meet inadequacies of documentation

“Memory is life” asserted Saul Bellow. In a given context this statement is incontrovertible.  Memory is not a fixed thing either. It is believed that our memories keep changing according to our life experiences and events. Personal memories create personal histories and an outlook of what we think of ourselves, our lives and also what we think of people and where we peg them in our worldview. We develop near permanent prejudices and judge in ways that may not necessarily be correct and just. But in all this, time does not wait for us. We age carrying our world view with us. Then some new fact emerges from the hidden mists of past colliding with our now fraying memories. Our perspective alters. But we also realise that it is too late for setting right the assumed wrong and we are left with remorse. But remorse is useless at this stage.. it is of no consolation and the ensuing suffering and misery is difficult to handle… that is the conclusion Tony Webster, the narrator in Julian Barnes moving book “The Sense of an Ending” arrives at when he says “There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest

The Sense of an Ending” is a deceptively lean but schematically complex book written with a cleverness, dexterity, precision, insight and maturity that goes beyond anything Barnes has written so far. To say this of a writer of Barnes caliber and astonishing oeuvre is indicative of something transcendental in his career as a writer. The last two books of his which I read –‘Nothing to be Frightened Of” and “Lemon Table” deal with death, dying and growing old. In this latest book Barnes adds to these themes other adjuncts like imperfections of memory, its impact on personal histories and history in general, role of suicide, uselessness of remorse and chain of human responsibility and its implications

Tony, Colin, Alex an affable threesome are joined by the brilliant Adrian in school to form a friendly quartet. Once out of school Adrian heads for Cambridge and Tony to Bristol for higher studies. Tony has a brief but intense affair with Veronica which breaks off immediately after a visit by Tony to Veronica’s house in Chislehurst. But before that Veronica gets introduced to Adrian and both fall in love. During the visit to Veronica’s house Tony becomes painfully aware of the class difference between him and veronica’s family. The visit also evokes a feeling of insult in Tony. Under inexplicable circumstances Adrian commits suicide without letting anyone know the reasons. When Mrs. Ford, Veronica’s mother dies, Tony, who is now sixty, receives an inheritance from Mrs. Ford and an intimation of the existence of a diary written by Adrian willed to him but which is held in possession by Veronica who refuses to part with it. Tony tries to re-establish a relationship with Veronica but his friendly overtures are returned with a brusque indifference bordering on rudeness. In one of his meetings with Veronica, Tony chances upon a mentally disturbed person who he assumes to be Veronica’s son. It eventually transpires that this person is the child of Mrs. Ford and Adrian.

Tony as first person omniscient narrator whose back and forth into past with an uncertain memory as his aid is done with a delicately balanced skill and supreme confidence of an accomplished writer. In the process Barnes touches various aspects that are pivotal and crucial to our lives. Consider this treatment of history and views around it:

History isn’t the lies of the victors as I once glibly assured Old Joe Hunt; I know that now. It’s more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated…or…. What had Old Joe Hunt answered when I knowingly claimed that history was the lies of the victors? As long as you remember that it is also the self-delusions of the defeated’  Do we remember that enough when it comes to our private lives?

or this extraordinary insight into the way we treat memory and the place we ascribe to it in our lives

We live with such easy assumptions, don’t we? For instance that memory equals events plus time. But it’s all much odder than this. Who was it said that memory is what we thought we’d forgotten? And it ought to be obvious to us that time doesn’t act as a fixative, rather as a solvent. But it’s not convenient – it’s not useful – to believe this; it doesn’t help us get on with our lives; so we ignore it

However, The Sense of an Ending is essentially about memory and its implications for life. Barnes reserves the finest treatment to this subject with a touch of philosophical grandeur. Consider this

Later, the memory becomes a thing of shreds and patches. It is 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 the log of your journey is much less clear……Or to put it another way. Someone once said that his favourite times in history were when things were collapsing, because they meant something new was being born – even if that something new is our very own self? Because just as all political and historical change sooner or later disappoints, so does adulthood. So does life. 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

In the recent past, I have read many good books but I can say with confidence that none of them, despite my gratitude to what they gave me, can come close to this superb book

 The Sense of an Ending  is a deeply moving, sad and pensive book on growing, ageing, imperfections of memory and its impact on an individual’s past and implications for the present and future, chain of human responsibility, personal history, limitations of remorse, complexity in human relations all dealt in a wonderfully coherent and intertwined plot.

That it has made to the Booker shortlist is a clear indicator of its prowess.. will it win the prize?… we need to wait and see

3 Responses to “The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes”

  1. tgcprasad said

    Good review Vish! Your writing has beautifully meshed with that of the author’s…almost sensing the ending, in a way, so to say…

  2. Prasad Tgc said

    Good review Vish! Your writing has beautifully meshed with that of the author’s…almost sensing the ending, in a way, so to say…

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