Unlike rolls of cinema, life that fades away into the past is not available for playback. Recollections are more a collage of overlapping images, colours fading into sepia, hues into grayscales, realities crisscrossing and blurring with wistful fiction. Like vignettes snatched from visions in a hypnogogic dream, memories ebb and surge, glisten and wane, change shapes and colours, lending stranger meanings to the past. Julian Barnes’ short novel ‘The Sense of an Ending’ mulls on the effervescence and malleability of memory in a slow rising cadence, achieving a crescendo which is chilling in retrospect.
The book seeks to establish that memory can be bitingly alien to the plain truths of the past, “what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.” We begin with Tony Webster reminiscing about his life and his childhood friend Adrian, beginning at the school where they met. Tony, Alex and Colin are close friends at a ‘girl-less’ school. They are cynical and irreverent and wear their watches on the inside of their wrists to mark themselves different from others. When Adrian joins the school and earns the focus of the class due to his intense, philosophical remarks, he is inducted into the clique of friends. However, Adrian refuses to imbibe the mocking attitude of the other three and remains as serious in his manners as to his classes and clarinet. Indeed, he carries the attitude right into his youth, “I hate the way English have of not being serious about being serious. I really hate it.”
Released from the school into the larger pen of life, friends go their different ways, promising to be lifelong friends, writing to each other. Adrian goes to Cambridge on a scholarship and Tony takes up History in Bristol where he meets Veronica, a prudish and enigmatic upper class girl. Somehow the Sixties refuse to make things easier for Tony as Veronica would not encourage physical intimacy. Over time she invites Tony to stay with her posh family for a weekend. Both her father and brother appear to have a condescending attitude towards him but what makes matters worse is that Veronica seems to be more on their side than Tony’s. Tony feels almost humiliated and is hugely relieved when he returns after the weekend. “I remember that I had a bloody good long shit.”
Soon after that Veronica gets introduced to Adrian and starts gravitating towards him. Tony receives a letter from Adrian asking his permission to go out with Veronica. Tony doesn’t take it kindly and hopes that time will take its revenge on both of them in his joint letter to them. Tony leaves for the States on a relaxing tour and it is only when he returns that he comes to know how time had indeed taken the revenge: Adrian had committed suicide. But it seems that that is not all.
Many years after that, well into his retirement, Tony discovers he has been paid back with ‘blood money’ and the diary of his long dead friend Adrian, by Veronica’s mother through her will. For Tony, who has always considered himself a staid, peaceable being, ignoring “those lulling and undermining what-ifs”, life takes unsettling and murky turns as his own curse returns to haunt him. He takes frantic plunges into the tunnels of past in search of meanings only to discover how illusive history could be. ‘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 that said 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.”
If ‘The Sense of an Ending’ is a treatise on elasticity of memory, it also carries a wickedly insistent theme to a startling climax. There are many betrayals in the story, some clear and some inferred, and by the time the last words are read no one is sure who is the most betrayed, thanks to the perennial pounding on the ramparts of memory. The author spins a bunch of images with the very first sentence of his book, “I remember in no particular order….” However, the reader is lulled into complacence by the charming account of childhood followed by the oafish naiveté of youth that fill the first part of the story. The malleability of memory, the skullduggery that the mind can play, doesn’t start haunting us till we begin the next half when Tony starts meandering in time, questioning the incidents, intentions and emotions of his quasi-forgotten past. His intimate tone is almost conspiratorial when he is philosophizing and deconstructing the past, sowing seeds of suspicion in the reader’ mind as well as his own. “When we are young, we invent different future for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others.”
Julian Barnes is an elegant author with a wry, lucid style. His main characters can be as real as to be breathing down one’s neck. Even as ‘The Sense of an Ending’ is soaked with his profound axioms, it flies like a swan. It is a clever book that deals in ‘damage’, death and betrayal almost in an undertone through the candy floss of memory. It is fully worth its slender weight in Booker that it almost didn’t win!
The Sense of an Ending
Author: Julian Barnes