History: A Reality Marked by Imperfections in Memory
By Chris Cahill
Think of a novel that demonstrates the possibilities of youth, the danger in complacency, the validity, or lack thereof, of memory, and the emotions that permeate our own accuracy. Few novels tackle such large topics, especially in less than 200 pages. However, Julian Barnes has created such a novel, appropriately named The Sense of an Ending.
Barnes is a well-established English writer who has produced nearly a dozen other novels over the past few decades. These works include England, England and Arthur and George, both of which show his mastery in modern and former English society. His works also include short stories, essays, and crime novels.
The Sense of an Ending begins as a flashback to the end of the narrator’s secondary school days. It takes place in England during the 1960s. The narrator, Tony, describes 1960s England as England in the 1950s with pockets of typical sixties behavior. He labels his life as normal. He has two friends, Colin and Alex, and he meets a third friend named Adrian. As an intellectual, his primary foci are school and university examinations, though he is somewhat desperate for a girlfriend. Questions on the validity of history dot his time, and the group, along with their professor, try to define what history really is. Tony says, admittedly rushed, that “history is the lies of the victors.” Adrian, on the other hand, suggests “history is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”
During his time at Bristol University Tony becomes involved with a women named Veronica; this relationship changes his view—and memory—of that time in his life. He and Veronica have a somewhat typical sixties relationship. They are mostly platonic, as this was common. Tony spends a sole weekend at Veronica’s house and meets her family. Regardless, their relationship deteriorates. They fight about their personality traits, and Tony is deemed peaceable. They eventually break up, and Adrian begins dating Veronica afterwards. Tony, though warped by his own memory, recalls being filled with anger and resentment towards them both.
Forty years later, Tony receives a letter telling him he has been bequeathed £500 and two documents. He is initially confused, but he finds out that Veronica’s mother left him these items. As he ponders their relation to him, he recalls his memories of Veronica, Adrian, and Veronica’s mother, Sarah. He decides to reach out to Veronica, who has the said documents, after decades without communication. But as Tony contacts and reconnects with her, he begins to understand the differences between his emotional memory and the truth. He discovers that he rewrites or disregards his past actions to fit his contentment while burying the truth under mountains of emotional cushion.
The Sense of an Ending is overall a hard book to like; nevertheless, Barnes is a talented author who does his job fairly well. He normally expresses his points quickly and efficiently, as the story is extremely short. Barnes also has a usually blunt style of writing that is beneficial when dealing with confusing topics like memory and history. At points, I self reflected on my memories, adding a level of interaction to the book. Regardless, I had to reread some sections multiple times just to capture an idea of what the author was trying to say. Moreover, I found the narrator frustrating by the end as a result of his actions in the book, and, for me, the actions of all the characters created a mental block. After being disgusted by their behaviors, I felt it consumed me more so than the topic of recollection. It also contains some sexual scenes that were unnecessary.
The primary focus of The Sense of an Ending is on the validity of history or memory, but it also takes into account interpersonal relationships with family members and partners. These topics generally resonate well with a general audience. However, with the main points in the novel occurring in the 1960’s, an older audience that has experienced this era will appreciate it more than younger generations. The book does a fair job of documenting etiquette and norms and capturing the British university feeling during the 1960’s. Irrespective, most can understand the effect the time period has on the novel as a whole.
End Point: I’m not sure if I can recommend the book, but Barnes does a model job of exemplifying the fallacies of memory.