A friend wrote recently on Facebook that when you lose someone you love there is no such thing as ’closure’, ‘only days when the loss doesn’t hit you like a truck’. I thought of this quite a bit as I read Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending. The narrator Tony Webster, looking back over his long life, ponders whether he has made the most of it. He’s a peaceable man (or so he says) and he likes things settled, tidy. He wants this so-called closure but it evades him:
Had my life increased, or merely added to itself? … There had been addition - and subtraction – in my life, but how much multiplication? And this gave me a sense of unease, of unrest. (p88)
When his ‘chippy, jealous and malign’ younger self (p97) comes back to shock his older peaceable self that ‘finds comfort in his own doggedness‘ (p89) his unrest escalates. He had thought himself safe from follies melted away by the frailties of memory because as we age ‘the witnesses to our lives decrease, and with them our essential corroboration’. (p98)
This made me think about the selves we create on Facebook, GoodReads, Twitter and yes, on blogs like this one: these digital selves are a kind of testimony about who we are. The longer we engage in them with people that we actually know, the more we recognise that these digital selves are not always corroborated by face-to-face contact. Digital selves are edited, filtered according to some view of the self not necessarily shared by others, and these selves are plastic – not in the sense of fake (or not usually, not with my friends) but in the sense of malleable.
Tony’s view of himself is that he’s a more-or-less reasonable sort of fellow. He looks back wryly at his adolescent self when he thought (like most of us) that he and his friends were cool observers of the world and comfortable with their own superiority. Now he realises that by the laws of mathematics and philosophy most people are average and so is he. He might even be complacent about this except that the malleable self (and some of the toys of the digital age such as email and Google) startle him into realising that actually he was not only culpably vindictive as a young man but that he’s capable now of revenge, spite and harassment to an extent which imperils his fond relationship with his only confidante, his ex-wife Margaret. He uses those digital toys (and his own doggedness) to do some rather nasty things!
The reader, trying to make sense of Tony’s account of himself, is puzzled by the inevitable omissions, distortions and self-delusions that characterise personal testimonies. As Tony struggles to understand himself, to achieve that sense of things being settled, the truth of his personal history seems slippery. As the pieces come together, the importance of the opening chapter when the boys are still at school becomes evident.
Discussing history, and how historians generate explanations for events, Tony’s friend Adrian says is that history can never really be understood. Even very recent personal history is opaque. As an example, he refers to the recent suicide of an older student, which can’t be explained because the boy’s suicide note gave no reason for his motives or his state of mind. Old Joe Hunt, the history master, reminds them to be wary of personal explanations because they are not always what they seem to be, and sometimes actions speak louder than words:
‘But nothing can make up for the absence of Robson’s testimony, sir’
‘In one way no. But equally, historians need to treat a participant’s own explanation of events with a certain scepticism. It is often the statement made with an eye to the future that is the most suspect….And mental states may often be inferred from actions.’ (p18)
But Tony fails to heed this warning when it comes to his memories of Adrian. Frozen in time, Adrian retains his status as The Great Mind, the most intelligent student among them, the one who ‘ had always seen more clearly than the rest of us … [and] … looked farther ahead and wider around’ (p99). With an eye to the future, he ensured his legacy: a noble standard for others to judge themselves by, and they do. The revelation at the end shows that Adrian was not what his personal testimony suggested.
The Sense of an Ending is a wise, thoughtful novel about human frailty, remorse and how sometimes, we need to look beyond what we are told by others about themselves and interrogate the face that is being presented to the world. Face-to face, the old-fashioned way…
Barnes won the Booker for The Sense of an Ending in 2011 and also the David Cohen Prize for an outstanding body of work so there are heaps of reviews online. Here are a couple:
Update: more reviews from some of my favourite bloggers
Sue at Whispering Gums, was reminded of reminded of TS Eliot‘s The love song of J. Alfred Prufrock by its melancholic tone, Tony at Tony’s Book World enjoyed reading a book ‘that’s smarter than we are’ and John Boland at Musings of a Literary Dilettante thought it was ‘perfectly formed, weighted, and considered.’
Author: Julian Barnes
Title: The Sense of an Ending
Publisher: Jonathan Cape 2011
ISBN: 9780224094153 (hardback first edition)
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Readings $24.95