Every time I’ve spoken to someone about Julian Barnes, Booker winning novel, The Sense of an Ending, or have read a review or a blog post discussing it, sooner or later the commentator has said the equivalent of “and when I got to the end I had to go back and start to read it again to see what I had missed”. This is one of the reasons that I left myself enough time before today’s Book Group to ensure that I could read the book very slowly indeed, making copious notes as I went along. I hate the idea of re-reading again immediately. When I’ve finished a book I like to give it time to inhabit some of the many empty spaces in my mind and give myself the opportunity to ruminate on it even when my brain is occupied with half a dozen other completely unrelated issues. I might go back after a respectable period has passed, but to re-read immediately doesn’t appeal to me at all.
As it happens, I don’t think I would have been any more secure in respect of what had actually happened in the life of Tony Webster after a second reading than I was after the first, because one of the points that Tony, the narrator, presses home repeatedly is that the idiosyncrasies of memory make unreliable narrators of all of us, and anyway, even if they didn’t, Tony isn’t above altering the past as he recounts it in order to make himself shine a little brighter and appear a little less ordinary.
I did slightly odd thing when I first met Margaret. I wrote Veronica out of my life story… It’s possible that when I finally got around to telling Margaret about Veronica, I’d laid it on a bit, made myself sound more of a dupe, and Veronica more unstable than she’d been.
Although, as he recognises, the person ultimately most likely to be fooled by such alterations is the individual themselves.
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.
A second reading might have made me clearer about the things that Tony says happened in his past but whether it would have made me any clearer about what actually did happen is another matter altogether.
The reliability of memory is just one of a number of related themes that Barnes explores in this book and it is the careful way in which they are interwoven which makes it such a satisfying read. As the quotation above suggests, the passage of time, often associated with the flow of water, is another. Speaking of the Severn Bore Tony says:
It was… unsettling because it looked and felt quietly wrong, as if some small lever of the universe had been pressed, and here, just for these minutes, nature was reversed, and time with it.
And when he is forced to engage with a version of the past that he has tried to deny, or at best, forget, he recognises that
[t]here is objective time, but also subjective time… And this personal time, which is the true time, is measured in your relationship to memory. So when this strange thing happened – when these new memories suddenly came upon me – it was as if, for that moment, time had been placed in reverse. As if, for that moment, the river ran upstream.
At university Tony has read History and so inevitably there are also discussions about who gets to write the Chronicle of the past. As a school boy he trots out the cliché that History is the lies of the victors, but in his personal life he comes to recognise that it is also the self-delusions of the defeated and acknowledges 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.
Memory, History, Time itself, cannot be trusted. Who then is capable of saying what is real and what is not?
You will have noticed that I have carefully said very little about what happens in this novel. This is partly because to do so would be to spoil it for those who have yet to read it, but mainly because I am still not certain what did happen, what I can trust, and what is in Tony’s mind. That you will have to decide for yourself. What I do know is that it is one of the most remarkable books I have ever read and one to which I shall definitely return, if not for that immediate read.