The Sense of an Ending
by Julian Barnes
Knopf, $23.95 (cloth)

“In those days, we imagined ourselves as being kept in some kind of holding pen, waiting to be released into our lives. And when that moment came, our lives—and time itself—would speed up. How were we to know that our lives had in any case begun, that some advantage had already been gained, some damage already inflicted? Also, that our release would only be into a larger holding pen, whose boundaries would be at first undiscernible.”

This and other passages in Julian Barnes’s new novel The Sense of an Ending, which won the 2011 Man Booker Prize, evoke adolescence as I (and, I’m sure, you) remember it. But how accurate are our memories?

Not very, says Barnes, who is something of a specialist in the subject. A preoccupation with the fallibility of memory characterizes his work, along with lucid prose and lifelong love of French literature. “How do we seize the foreign past?” wonders Geoffrey, the narrator of Flaubert’s Parrot, Barnes’s breakthrough 1984 novel. “We read, we learn, we ask, we remember, we are humble; and then a casual detail shifts everything.”

Flaubert’s Parrot was the first of his books to be on the Booker shortlist (England, England and Arthur & George followed, in 1998 and 2005 respectively). It was, and remains, one of my favorite modern novels, and should have been a shoo-in for the prize. I re-read it once every couple of years with undiminished pleasure, mildly obsessed with it much as Geoffrey, a retired doctor and Flaubert expert, is mildly obsessed with an assortment of stuffed parrots, one of which may be the genuine taxidermied bird the great French novelist kept on his writing desk. Of course, the parrot is only a plot device; the novel is primarily a (Proustian rather than Flaubertian) quest for lost time, leading away from the broad boulevard of the main narrative down the quiet byways of the past, where guilt lurks in the shadows. It becomes apparent that Geoffrey’s parrot quest is a way of coping with memories of his wife’s unfaithfulness and suicide. That, and the source of a certain formulaic bravado:

We were happy; we were unhappy; we were happy enough. Is despair wrong? Isn’t it the natural condition of life after a certain age? I have it now; she had it earlier. After a number of events, what is there left but repetition and diminishment? Who wants to go on living?

Memory is fallible; no news there. We all tinker with it to suit our needs. Given long enough, a false memory can substitute for a real one, or none. And memory isn’t a single entity, anyway. It’s all over the place, responding to different fears and desires: the past is subjective. Geoffrey insists on this point:

The past is a distant, receding coastline, and we are all in the same boat. Along the stern rail there is a line of telescopes; each brings the shore into focus at a given distance. If the boat is becalmed, one of the telescopes will be in continual use; it will seem to tell the whole, the unchanging truth. But this is an illusion; and as the boat sets off again, we return to our normal activity: scurrying from one telescope to another, seeing the sharpness fade in one, waiting for the blur to clear in another. And when the blur does clear, we imagine that we have made it do so all by ourselves.

Stylistically, Barnes’s stock-in-trade is quotidian realism, leavened with mild satire and total recall of the feel of the past, frequently of that moment when adolescence becomes adulthood and youthful hope yields to reality. This comes into play right from the start in his debut novel, Metroland (1980). Cross-Channel relations play a large part, too. During les événements of May 1968, Chris, the hero, leaves behind studies in Paris and romance with an exciting French girl, and returns to the boring tranquility of marriage, kid, job, etc., all in the sprawling Greater London suburbia of the title, all in the interests of growing up. Here the meandering byways lead, apparently, straight to Dullsville—certainly by contrast to the heady juvenile heaven of May ’68:

I suppose I must be grown-up now. Or would ‘adult’ be a better word, a more . . . adult word? If you came and inventoried me, I’d have ticks in all the appropriate boxes. I’m surprised how well camouflaged I seem.

“Camouflaged” is hardly the apt term. Chris really is what he seems, however reluctant he is to admit it. The question Barnes poses here and elsewhere is whether we condemn ourselves to mediocrity when we opt for the “normal” life, or do we just put aside childish things and grow up? Do we lose what makes us special, in the process? And while we’re on the subject, how much of what we think once made us special is only a trick of memory? Barnes typically tackles these questions head-on. The protagonist of Staring at the Sun (1986), Jean Serjeant, believing she is indeed losing what makes her special, leaves her husband after twenty years of a dreary marriage, just before their first child is born, in a deliberate snub of “normal” life and respectability.

Pregnancy seemed to nudge her into wider expectations, and her easy capriciousness whispered like a secret breeze that character need not be fixed.

The dangers inherent in swimming against the tide become obvious, but in Staring at the Sun, as in his other novels, Barnes opts for a balance between self-knowledge and hope. At times, he suggests, the mutability of the past is a good thing, because it allows us to refashion history according to our present-day needs; nothing is set in stone. Jean sets off in old age on a kind of Homeric quest for wisdom and completeness, as embodied in a machine, the airplane, sole means available to soar toward God. It’s all a bit more mythical, even mystical, than most of Barnes’s work, which is solidly centered in people’s everyday lives, but it ends with an unforgettable literary epiphany that proves Barnes as capable of evoking enchantment as disillusionment.

How much of what we think makes us special is only a trick of memory?

He evokes both again in Arthur & George, one of his most impressive accomplishments. Set in the early years of the Edwardian era, it’s a virtuoso retelling of a true case, a cunning detective story worthy of Sherlock Holmes’s creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who is, in fact, the Arthur of the title. Recently widowed, Arthur enters into correspondence with one George Edalji, a half-Indian solicitor, who has been convicted of criminal behavior in a case heavy with racial prejudice. Arthur is convinced that the man is innocent and takes on the case and the race-baiting establishment to which he, ideal Edwardian gentleman that he is in so many ways, remains an outsider. He shares the brooding intelligence of his most famous creation:

Life. How easily everyone, including himself, said the word. Life must go on, everyone routinely agreed. And yet how few asked what it was, and why it was, and if it was the only life or the mere amphitheatre to something quite different. Arthur was frequently baffled by the complacency with which people went on with . . . what they insouciantly called their lives, as if both the word and the thing made perfect sense to them.

As he barrels ahead with the determination of a crusader, we learn that Arthur’s zeal, admirable as it is, is as much motivated by a need to distract himself from guilt-ridden memories of his late wife, Touie, as by a desire to see justice done:

He always imagined that Touie’s long illness would somehow prepare him for her death. He always imagined that grief and guilt, if they followed, would be more clear-edged, more defined, more finite. Instead they seem like weather, like clouds constantly re-forming into new shapes, blown by nameless, unidentifiable winds.

Whether it’s Flaubert’s France or Conan Doyle’s England, we’re solidly in Barnes territory, where the markers are memory and the mutable past.

• • •

In The Sense of an Ending, his eleventh novel, Barnes’s meditations on memory attain their zenith. The unusual title is borrowed from a work of criticism by the late critic Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction (1967). Kermode’s thesis is that stories exist to frame our messy biographies in some kind of order and give the illogical onrush of life a sense of artistic closure.

Fair enough, but Barnes’s concern is really with how past gives way to present—the sense of a beginning. Tony Webster, now in his 60s, has a pretty clear one. He seems to know what happened and why, right from the start. But Tony turns out to be the unreliable narrator par excellence. He observes, “What you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed” and goes on to prove it by misremembering a whole lot about his life, starting with his schooldays. Four friends, Tony, Colin, Alex, and Adrian, were an inseparable schoolboy quartet, he recalls, even though it’s more than 40 years ago now and Adrian never really settled into the groove, never really belonged. The other three were ordinary English schoolboys, hung-up, awkward, and self-conscious, but Adrian was given to making portentous remarks such as, “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation’’—which, come to think of it, neatly summarizes Barnes’s main theme. But Adrian inspires respect among his peers; there’s something whole about him that strikes even the most obtuse adolescent, and that wholeness of personality makes him stand out in Tony’s memory with some clarity.

The three of us considered school sports a cryptofascist plan for repressing our sex drive; Adrian joined the fencing club and did the high jump. We were belligerently tone-deaf; he came to school with his clarinet.

Adrian’s special qualities soon come to the attention of Tony’s attractive and manipulative first girlfriend, Veronica Ford (a name no doubt intended to invoke the spirit of Ford Madox Ford, author of The Good Soldier, whose narrator, Dowell, is one of literature’s classic unreliable narrators). She takes up with Adrian after she and Tony part, but only after Adrian writes to ask Tony’s permission. Tony sends back a dismissive letter, the details of which have become a little hazy over the years.

As far as I remember, I told him pretty much what I thought of their joint moral scruples. I also advised him to be prudent, because in my opinion Veronica had suffered damage a long way back. Then I wished him good luck . . . and decided that the two of them were now out of my life for ever.

But soon after graduating from university with a first-class degree, Adrian commits suicide. Being Adrian, he does it in style—Roman style, actually, slitting his wrists in his bathtub (“And he knew how to do it. You have to cut diagonally”). His friends are shaken up but reconcile themselves to Adrian’s uniqueness in death as in life. He was a philosopher, they say, and died like one, displaying calm efficiency to the last: “first-class degree, first-class suicide.” After this brief hiccup, their lives go on. The chums drift apart. Tony lives quietly and undramatically. He marries, has a daughter, becomes a cultural bureaucrat, gets divorced, becomes a father and grandfather, and retires. Nothing much else happens. Tony is mostly philosophical about this, but subsequent events cause him to turn self-critical.

What did I know of life, I who had lived so carefully? Who had neither won nor lost, but just let life happen to him? Who had the usual ambitions and settled all too quickly for them not being realized? Who avoided being hurt and called it a capacity for survival?

Even his divorce is uncomplicated and amicable; he still meets his ex-wife for lunch from time to time. Temperamental opposites, they balance each other out: “She sees only what’s gone; I see only what’s stayed the same,” he remarks shrewdly, dropping a hint to the alert reader. (These little hints are scattered throughout the novel, tracing a narrative itinerary that stands out from its background, on a second reading.) As events lead him to confront his past, he becomes less complacent, more quizzical about his version of long-ago things and his appetite for reliving them: Is it all just yearning for what never really was?

I’ve been turning over in my mind the question of nostalgia, and whether I suffer from it. I certainly don’t get soggy at the memory of some childhood knickknack; nor do I want to deceive myself sentimentally about something that wasn’t even true at the time—love of the old school, and so on. But if nostalgia means the powerful recollection of strong emotions—and a regret that such feelings are no longer present in our lives—then I plead guilty.

Then: bang! Those strong emotions return in force when Tony learns that Veronica’s mother, whom he met only once, has died and left him £500—and Adrian’s diary. Half-forgotten relationships emerge from the shadows as Tony sets about solving the mystery behind the surprise bequest, facing up to some unpleasant verities about himself along the way. Indeed, he discovers that few of his putative memories bear much scrutiny, and much that he took at face value is simply made up.

It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age: when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others.

In the second part of this visitation from long ago, Veronica reenters Tony’s life. She meets with him but refuses to hand over Adrian’s diary, which various legal niceties have placed in her keeping. She parts only with the photocopy of a fragment that ends, tantalizingly, “. . . so, for instance, if Tony.” Innocuous words, possibly, but in Tony’s sudden state of heightened self-awareness

the words were practically complete in themselves and didn’t need an explanatory main clause to follow. Yes indeed, if Tony had seen more clearly, acted more decisively, held to truer moral values, . . . If Tony hadn’t been fearful, hadn’t counted on the approval of others for his own self-approval . . . and so on, through a succession of hypotheticals leading to the final one: so, for instance, if Tony hadn’t been Tony.

But Tony is Tony, and what he discovers indirectly, through Veronica, and directly, through a photocopy of that long-ago letter he’d sent her and Adrian, upends his quiet life and shakes his faith in himself and his memories. The final unraveling of the mystery is surprisingly suspenseful; the pace quickens, the last few pages go by in a flash. And then you will be tempted, as I was, to go back and begin again.

If you’re anywhere near Tony’s age, what happens to him—or something like it—has probably happened to you. If not, it will. Sooner or later, we all have to come to terms with our own fractious past, and, indeed, that of humanity itself. “History isn’t the lies of the victors,” Tony says. “It’s more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated.”

As Flaubert might say, C’est la vie.