The Sense of an Ending
I have just caught up with Julian Barnes’s 2011 novel The Sense of an Ending and, somewhat to my surprise, a week after finishing it I still find myself turning it over in my mind. Not so much the plot, which is rather thin, but some of his treacherously simple sentences and some of his subtle reflections on memory, history, loss, and storytelling. Particularly the stories we tell ourselves as our life unfolds – and how we may have to revise them, re-vision them, in the second half of our lives:
“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.”
The novel illustrates – as many novels do – the law of unintended consequences: how small actions that we might forget about have larger ramifications that we may never (perhaps fortunately) know of; and how we see only one small fragment of the enormous web of being in which we are held. We spin our lives in one direction but the impact that might have on others is always unpredictable, and to a certain degree unknowable. This could be frightening if it weren’t so mysterious, and so filled with the possibility that the consequences we never know about could also be benign, life-enhancing, life-changing: that our capacity for unintended goodness is a large as our capacity for unintended harm. Of course we want to think that our capacity to be a blessing to others is larger than our potential to hurt them – but one of the things Barnes’s novel shows is that this may be based more on wishful thinking than on reality.
Near the beginning of the novel there are a marvellous couple of sentences as the narrator tells us what he is plotting to do - take us back to his schooldays, not out of nostalgia, but because in order to tell his story he needs “to return briefly to a few incidents that have grown into anecdotes, to some approximate memories which time has deformed into certainty. If I can’t be sure of the actual events anymore, I can at least be true to the impressions those facts left. That’s the best I can manage.”
The novel illustrates the quietly devastating effect of this casual-feeling attempt at recall, with the hesitancy and diffidence of ‘briefly...approximate...can’t be sure...impressions...best I can manage’ set against the unexpected and stinging harshness of ‘deformed into certainty’, a phrase that brings us up short as we reflect on its wider provenance.
What aspects of our lives has time ‘deformed into certainty’? Stories we tell ourselves, and others, about how things were – but how do we really know? Often our memories are composed of old photographs, bits of cine film, or other people’s stories about us that we have taken on as a true account of ourselves. But as Barnes shown in the novel, memory is one of the most elusive aspects of our humanity. We remember things the way we want to remember things – not how they were. We have our secret agendas about how we want to tell the stories of our past – and sometimes the secret is not even known by us, (in other words, it is an unconscious process): we don’t even know we are misrepresenting, misconstruing, our past as we become more of a victim, or less of a persecutor, or some other ‘deformation’ of the truth of that irretrievable density of experience we call our past.
But it is not only personal histories that are ‘deformed into certainty’. National histories too become told in a particular way that bears only a partial relationship to the complexity of how things were: whether it is the Battle of Britain, the birth of Israel as a State, or the current political and economic crisis in Europe, competing and complex narratives have a habit of congealing into a fixed and definitive ‘certainty’. Facts are twisted into a shape that suits the teller; so, as one of Barnes’s characters puts it, “we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us”.
And it occurred to me too that this concept of “memories which time has deformed into certainty” is a wonderfully suggestive phrase in relation to the Bible, that repository of memory-transformed-into-language. The texts are crafted composites of memory and myth, legend and law, history, story, poem and song, twisted in certain directions – directions of certainty – by the narrators themselves, and then again by later readers. Though the narrators often allowed in more uncertainty in their storytelling than later readers could, and can, bear. But that is another story, for another time.
Meanwhile, Julian Barnes has written a short novel of deceptive simplicity that will play in your mind, and allows your mind to play. And what else do we want from a story?