The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes. New York: Vintage International, 2011.
Summary: A bequest that includes a letter and a diary forces a man in his sixties to examine the way he has remembered and conceived of his life.
One of the dangers of reaching one’s sixties is that you begin the process of remembering your life. What is often not considered is that the way we remember it, and tell it may be of our “best self” but not necessarily of our true self. We may not even be aware of it, but there are episodes that are edited out, things done and said that we shove in a mental drawer, or hide in a closet. This novel, a Man Booker prize winner by the author of the more recent fictional biography of Dmitri Shostakovich, The Noise of Time (reviewed here) is a finely written psychological exploration of our constructed memories that shield us from knowing our true selves.
Tony Weber is a retired, divorced late middle aged man living in London. The first part of his book is a remembering of his life. He begins with his adolescence in a boys school, and the heady mix of ideas and awakening sexuality that is part of this period. We meet his friends, Alex and Colin, and the fourth who joins this group, the philosophical Adrian. The boys part but stay in touch during college years. Tony reads history at Bristol while Adrian goes to Cambridge. Much of the story here involves Tony’s relationship with Veronica, his encounter with her “posh” family, and the mother who tries to warn him off her while making him eggs for breakfast. Tony and Veronica have a sexually frustrating relationship and only have intercourse after she breaks off with him. This leads to an even more messy conversation where she tries to get him to be real to her, real to himself. Eventually Veronica gets into a relationship with Adrian, who writes him asking leave for them to see each other. Adrian sends a reply that he doesn’t go into a lot of detail about, and then gets on with his life, going to America and traveling around with a girl for a few months and then parting. When he arrives home he learns that Adrian has committed suicide. Tony and his friends puzzle over this, move on and separate. Tony marries, has a daughter with whom he has a decent relationship, divorces Margaret, his wife, lives a reasonably successful life, and enjoys a quiet retirement of trips and volunteer work. Until…
He receives word one day that Veronica’s mother had died and left him a bequest of five hundred pounds, a letter, and a diary. The money he receives easily enough. The letter and diary are in the possession of Veronica, who will not yield them up, at first. The second half of the book describes a number of encounters, often ending with the refrain from Veronica, “You just don’t get it, do you? You never did and you never will.” First she sends a cryptic page from the diary. Then she gives him the letter, which turns out to be a brutally cruel letter, the letter he had written in response to Adrian’s letter, a letter he had white-washed in his mind.
He begins to see that the memory he has constructed of his life doesn’t fit the reality. Yet he is troubled by what he doesn’t get, and this takes him deeper, into his choice of “peaceableness,” of an unwillingness to feel pain or to take a risk to really live and be responsible for his life. I will not give away the secret why Veronica’s mother gave him the bequest or came to have the letter and diary. What it brings him to is a sobering alternative narrative of his life that he summarizes with these words:
“There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest.”
This is a book that holds up a mirror to show us the false selves that we construct with our “best self” memories and the danger of a life lived embracing that false self. It seems to me that facing up to the false selves, the constructed memories, as painful as these are, may be better than living cluelessly. If nothing else, it makes us keenly aware of our need for redemption.