The Sense of An Ending
“We live in time — it holds us and moulds us — but I've never felt I understood it very well. And I'm not referring to theories about how it bends and doubles back, or may exist elsewhere in parallel versions. No, I mean ordinary, everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly: tick-tock, click-clock. Is there anything more plausible than a second hand? And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time's malleability. Some emotions speed it up, others slow it down; occasionally, it seems to go missing — until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return.” – Julian Barnes
Last week I finished listening to this novel on my iPod. Have been putting off listening to it, and I am not sure why, since it received such glowing and interesting reviews, and since it won the Booker Prize this past year.
Now that I have it in my inner life, I know it was an important book for me. Not so much for the narrator, who by the end of the novel was really annoying me with his compulsive emails and controlling personality. It was the novelist’s comments on time and on regret that got me. I think that few people younger than 60 ( maybe 50) can really grasp this topic. For example, he has his narrator observe:
“Or perhaps it’s the 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?” ( Barnes)
I went to good old Google and read some reviews, too, and am including some of the reviewers’ comments here :
Andrew Blackman in his blog The Writer’s Life talks about Julian Barnes’ novel The Sense of an Ending.
“much of what we think is important is rendered utterly irrelevant by the passing of time.” (bold and italics mine)
“The original explanation was that the friend killed himself because he had rationally thought through the nature of life and acted on the consequences. But the truth, we suspect, is more complex, more emotional, less intellectually pure, and the hints at a different conclusion are what keep us reading.” ( Blackman)
-and from Nivedita Barve’s review: “Memory – a reward for having lived a life, having lived it with others, having lived it through events of varying consequences – how trustworthy is it? Sometimes we remember only a smell or a posture and forget the face, or when we meet a person on the street we remember the face - even after years - but cannot find a name to match it. But more often what we remember is only our own response to events, feelings of pleasure or distress without being able to recall the events themselves that had caused them. Tony Webster, the protagonist of the novel 'The Sense of an Ending', faces a similar predicament as he tries to reconstruct the past and has only his imperfect memory to assist him.”- and from Corinna Lothar’s: “Early in Julian Barnes‘ novel The Sense of an Ending, a teacher asks, “What is history?” London teenager Tony Webster answers, “History is the lies of the victors.” Tony’s brilliant friend, Adrian Finn, “a tall, shy boy,” answers the same question with “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”
“Adrian’s answer is the leitmotif of this deliciously intriguing novel, as Tony, now a 60-year-old retiree, recalls the events of his life, only to discover that what he remembers and what actually happened are not one and the same.” ( Lothar)
“But like all of us, he has carried his youth inside him into adulthood, fixed in vivid memory. Looming largest in his personal mythology is his brilliant, tragic, Camus-reading school friend Adrian (another echo of Nothing to Be Frightened Of here: in that book Barnes remembers a similar friend by the fitting but unlikely name of Alex Brilliant). It is a solicitor's letter informing him that, 40 years on, he has been left Adrian's diary in a will, that sets Tony to examining what he thinks his life has been. ( Jordan)
-and from Liesel Schillinger: “Does character develop over time?” Tony asks himself, wondering at the “larger holding pen” that has come to contain his adult life. Maybe character freezes sometime between the ages of 20 and 30, he speculates. “And after that, we’re just stuck with what we’ve got. We’re on our own. If so, that would explain a lot of lives, wouldn’t it? And also — if this isn’t too grand a word — our tragedy.”
“Not long after the breakup with Veronica, Tony had met, married and (eventually) been divorced from a nonenigmatic woman with “clear edges,” someone he knew he wouldn’t mind losing terribly much. In Margaret, he sought a mature, “peaceable” life. Decades later, he sees the fraudulence in that discretion. “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.” (Schillinger)
“Barnes’s unreliable narrator is a mystery to himself, which makes the novel one unbroken, sizzling, satisfying fuse. Its puzzle of past causes is decoded by a man who is himself a puzzle. Tony resembles the people he fears, “whose main concern is to avoid further damage to themselves, at whatever cost,” and who wound others with a hypersensitivity that is insensitive to anything but their own needs. “I have an instinct for survival, for self-preservation,” he reflects. “Perhaps this is what Veronica called cowardice and I called being peaceable.”
“The Sense of an Ending is a short book, but not a slight one. In it Julian Barnes reveals crystalline truths that have taken a lifetime to harden. He has honed their edges, and polished them to a high gleam.” ( Schillinger)
Back to my own thoughts on this. That quote “much of what we think is important is rendered utterly irrelevant by the passing of time.” That is so true when I try to remember some things I thought were terribly important at 18, or at 21, or maybe even at 35. I am embarrassed by some of them today. So then, what was important that I didn’t give my attention to? That I wish I could go back and do again? Talk with my mother about her family, her childhood.
She didn’t want to talk about her childhood,because she said it was too painful, and I wasn’t really interested in hearing it, either. That’s just one inquiry I regret not making while she was alive and still remembering.
In another part of the novel, the narrator says
“Also, when you are young, you think you can predict the likely pains and bleaknesses that age might bring…you imagine yourself… children growing away from you, friends dying.. loss of status, loss of desire – and desirability… you may go further and consider your own approaching death… But all this is looking ahead. What you fail to do is look ahead, and then imagine yourself looking back from that future point. Learning the new emotions that time brings. Discovering, for example, that as the witnesses to your life diminish, there is less corroboration and therefore less certainty, as to what you are or have been. 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.” ( Barnes 65)
For some reason, that passage really hit me. Need to write about that more. What are the new emotions that time brings?