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Sat November 19, 2011
Speak, Memory: 'An Ending' That Uncovers The Past
The Sense of an Ending, winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize, might be — paradoxically — Julian Barnes' slenderest and most emotionally forthcoming book to date. In his previous novels and short stories, emotion has been stifled, concealed or tucked behind technical devices (as in Flaubert's Parrot). In this latest book, feeling is laid bare and imbued into Barnes' longstanding intellectual preoccupations with authorship, authenticity and mortality.
Stella Rimington, chair of the Booker judging committee, praised The Sense of an Ending for its ingenious plotting and its revelations into character: "One of the things that the book does is talk about the human kind," she says. "None of us really knows who we are. We present ourselves in all sorts of ways, but maybe the ways we present ourselves are not how we really are."
When protagonist Tony Webster, a retiree in his 60s, learns that the mother of his college girlfriend, Veronica, has left him a bequest, it sets off a chain reaction. Tony tracks down Veronica and other long-forgotten classmates — including the inscrutable Adrian. To his horror, he discovers that he had cruelly wounded his friends years ago, and he must now radically revise who he thinks he is.
It's a book about "memory and time," Barnes tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer. "What time does to memory and what memory does to time, how they interact. And it's also about what happens to someone in later years when they discover that some of the certainties they've always relied on, certainties in their mind and memory ... are beginning to be undermined."
Memory, as Barnes understands it — and as Tony is forced to realize — is far more edited than we'd like to believe.
"I have a brother who's a philosopher," Barnes says. "He maintains that almost all memories are false, all fallible, and that memory is the act of imagination, rather than the act of a lucid remembering machine somewhere up in our brains. I have a more sort of old-fashioned, pragmatic view of memory. But I certainly increasingly think that it's not only faulty but sometimes over-reliant on the imagination."
Barnes has been exploring questions of self-delusion and personal narratives throughout his career, most intensively in his previous book, Nothing to Be Frightened Of, in which he investigated how writers and philosophers have reckoned with mortality.
If aging makes such musings — on legacy, death, the unknown — (what Barnes calls "pit-gazing" in Nothing to Be Frightened Of), it also makes it more difficult as we begin to lose our peers, the witnesses who could corroborate our memories.
It's a phenomenon Barnes noticed in his own life.
"I've got no close friends left from when I was a schoolboy up to the time I was 18," he says. "And from those I met at university ... I think I've got one who I occasionally run into. So it's just partly changing circumstances as well as death. But the ability to check things diminishes ... And so that's why what happens to Tony Webster in my novel when some of his certainties are violently overturned, it's not a pleasant experience and it can lead to some powerful and unpleasant emotions."
If we can't even reconcile our individual pasts, what does it say about our ability to settle on national narratives? As Tony ruminates in the book,
I still read a lot of history, and of course, I've followed all the official history that's happened in my own lifetime — the fall of Communism, Mrs. Thatcher, 9/11, global warming — with a normal mixture of fear, anxiety and cautious optimism. But I've never felt the same about it. I've never quite trusted it as I do events in Greece or Rome or the British Empire or the Russian Revolution. Perhaps I just feel safer with the history that's been more or less agreed upon. Or perhaps it's that same paradox again. The history that happens underneath our noses ought to be the clearest. And yet, it's the most deliquescent.
Much has been made of the relative slenderness of Barnes' book – it clocks in at under 200 pages — but like a particularly pleasing or complicated memory, it rewards revisiting — not least because there's a twist. Barnes notes that readers tell him that they frequently reread the book right after completing it to see where he's sprinkled hints about the final reveal.
And in an instance of art brutally mirroring life, the brevity of the book isn't incidental; it's central to the pleasure of reading. Barnes says concision was imperative, "this is a book about what we can't know." And like life, by the time we know the whole story — alas — it's too late.