A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

What I'm Reading

Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending

I read Barnes's short novel in almost one sitting, not because it's a particularly compelling narrative, but almost because it isn't. British novels that begin with recollections of school days and early loves gone wrong are so common that I was impelled by a suspicion that "there must be more to it than this."

There is, of course, or the Booker people wouldn't have given it their prize. But whether there is quite enough to overcome the nagging sense that here is yet another work of fiction undermined by its narrative trickery is still an open question for me. Fairly early in the book, a character quotes a definition that he ascribes to a French historian named Patrick Lagrange (who is fictitious): "History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation." If you aren't alerted then that the novel is going to center on the distortions and omissions of memory, you haven't been reading enough contemporary fiction.

The crux of the novel is a letter that the narrator, Tony Webster, has forgotten ever writing: one to a friend who had taken up with a girl that Tony had been seeing. The letter, when Tony sees it again, 40-some years later, long after he has been married to and divorced from another woman and has settled into a quiet retirement, is a vicious denunciation of both the friend and his former girlfriend. The letter has had bitter consequences, of which Tony has spent his life unaware.
I reread this letter several times. I could scarcely deny its authorship or its ugliness. All I could plead was that I had been its author then, but was not its author now. Indeed, I did not recognise that part of myself from which the letter came. But perhaps this was simply further self-deception. 
He tries to divorce himself from the consequences of the letter -- as he says, he "was not its author now" -- but they have been so devastating that even though he has lived a quiet and satisfactory life, believing himself to be a good man, the letter serves as a bridge between his present self and his earlier one. He reflects,
Does character develop over time? In novels, of course it does; otherwise there wouldn't be much of a story. But in life? I sometimes wonder. Our attitudes and opinions change, we develop new habits and eccentricities; but that's something different, more like decoration.
The letter and its consequences cause him to try to view his life as a whole, but the disjunction between the self who wrote the letter and the self he perceives himself to be now remains. (At the same time, Barnes is playing a bit of a game by having a character in a novel reflect on the difference between character in a novel and character in life. As the professor would say: Discuss.)

The moral crux of the novel is evident. Tony tries to escape from one aspect of it, the supernatural:
Of course I don't -- I didn't -- believe in curses. That is to say, in words producing events. But the very action of naming something that subsequently happens -- of wishing specific evil, and that evil coming to pass -- this still has a shiver of the otherworldly about it. The fact that the young me who cursed and the old me who witnessed the curse's outcome had quite different feelings -- this was monstrously irrelevant. 
But on the other hand, he has to admit, "If life did reward merit, then I deserved shunning."

I value The Sense of an Ending for Barnes's willingness to pose a moral question: How much guilt should we assume for things we never intended to bring about and of which we were unaware? At the same time, I question whether it is less a novel than a fable crafted to serve as a case study in an ethics class.