Stale Bread Lunch

Literate and nerdy. By Michael James Boyle.

The Sense of an Ending

Mar 12, 2014

The Sense of an Ending

The Sense of an Ending

Julian Barnes

Knopf, October 2011

ISBN 978-0307957122

Julian Barnes’s novel, The Sense of an Ending is a gorgeous little book. It’s so short, and so lovely, that I’m tempted say that you shouldn’t waste any time reading this and should instead just go and read it. Like many books I’ve read lately—it’s safe to say this is a theme for me at this point—the novel focuses on an exploration of reality and perception, this time in a very personal way. It’s all about memory, the things we remember, the things we don’t, and the stories we invent, almost effortlessly, to explain the events of our lives. Sensations tinted by assumptions as they are explained into stories before they harden into history as they recede into the past.

The narrative is told in the first person by Anthony Webster, a British man who grew up in the ’50s and ’60s, looking back over his life. From the beginning it is clear that there is a story being told, some greater point to the anecdotes, but exactly what that is doesn’t come into focus until much closer to the ending (and while it’s far from the point of the book, I won’t spoil the details here). The narrator begins with a few flashes of memory. Images. The kind of tokens you hold onto that aren’t memories per se, but have come to represent them. The sense of them, as the title suggests. Much of the novel focuses on the snap judgements we make when telling ourselves someone else’s story, and these led me to one of my own. In those first few lines, I assumed we were hearing the story of the arc of a man’s relationship with his wife. Like so many of the Tony’s own assumptions, mine was quite wrong.

Over the first half of the novel, there isn’t even a narrative as such. Instead the flashes of memory spread out and become anecdotes as if living out the transition from memory to story. This sounds as thought it might be tiresome or dull or fail to hang together, and perhaps it might be if the book weren’t so short. As it is, the memories expand into vignettes that give the impression of a life. We’re led along to extrapolate from these an impression of the narrator’s formative years, his boyhood friends, and his first love affair. It’s an impression, perhaps, something like what the man holds of himself.

But it isn’t the story of his life. What you’d think would be most important, meeting his wife, his career, his daughter, his divorce, his grandchildren, all pass by in a glancing mention. “I’d left home, and started work as a trainee in arts administration. Then I met Margaret; we married, and three years later Susie was born.” By the end of the paragraph, they are divorced. By the end of the next page, we’re brought through grandchildren and retirement to the present, all stated as a matter of fact.

Perhaps to Tony all of that is simply the present. No need to think too hard on the realities of life. It is what it is. You don’t reminisce about today. Who he is now is self-evident.

Instead of bringing his portrait into the current moment, Tony doubles back on the past. The beginning of the book paints a portrait, through remembered anecdotes of Tony’s school friends, most particularly Adrian who became, in memory at least, the focal point of their little group. The next part is a portrait of Tony’s first, failed love affair in college with a girl named Veronica. She never seems to like him all that much, though that is, of course, tinted by his knowledge of where it all goes, and it’s all tied up in adolescent sex, or the lack of it. The infra-sex, as he terms it, that he’s thrilled to have, and the ever-near presence of the full-sex that he doesn’t. He takes her to meet his friends. He stays with her family for a weekend and meets her mocking, disapproving father, her sly, indifferent brother, and her kind, reassuring mother. Then it ends, through one last bout of sex, and before long he learns she’s dating his friend, Adrian.

The next day, I took a milk jug she’d given me down to the Oxfam shop. I hoped she’d see it in the window. But when I stopped to check, there was something else on show instead: a small coloured lithograph of Chislehurst I’d given her for Christmas.

After pretending everything is fine, he writes them, or rather writes Adrian, addressing them both, and tells them exactly how he really feels, which is hurt and not very highly of either of them. Then, feeling good about having the last word, he writes them out of his life and turns to a new one, the one he so matter-of-factly portrays. When he returns from his first step, a trip around America, it’s to learn Adrian has committed suicide. It isn’t, it seems, out of depression, but because he decided it was his right and the right thing to do and so it would have been a moral failing not to. Tony and his surviving friends meet and mourn Adrian, but he doesn’t think much about Veronica, and without Adrian at its center, their group disperses to live out the rest of their own lives.

Then, years later, in the present day, Tony learns he’s been named in Vernoica’s mother’s will. She’s left him £500 and Adrian’s journal. When at last he gets in touch with Veronica to try to figure out why she left him the money and to claim the journal, she calls the former blood money refuses to turn over the latter. What he gets instead is a copy of the letter he had sent them. It isn’t witty. It isn’t even passionate. It’s just cruel and petty and, in light of Adrian’s suicide, tragic. And so he’s forced to reconcile his vision of himself, who has hardly thought of Veronica in years, and scarcely remembers what he wrote, with the one Veronica remembers, the man who sent that letter. And the Veronica he remembers, the capricious, posh, even cruel woman, with the one he’s now met again, who won’t tell him anything of her life, but seems to still live in that past he left behind.

So his goal shifts from claiming what is his to making sense of who she is, going back over his assumptions about her and about her family. Is her brother the sneering aristocrat he assumed or a disappointed man, saving face? Was her mother a kind woman, looking to shield him from her capricious daughter, or a jealous woman in competition with her? Was Veronica a bitter, cynical opportunist who attached herself to the brightest around her, or a woman who never got to have a life of her own and lived out the remainder of her days taking care of Adrian’s legacy? And who, given all that, is he? The patient, complacent man, on good terms with his ex-wife even though she left him for another man? Or the hurtful man who is only there when there is something to be gained, be it sex, £500, or absolution?

It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age: when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others.

We all have moments we look back on and cringe. And times when we wonder if we aren’t the sympathetic figures we imagine ourselves to be and are, as it turns out, the assholes of the story. And all but the least empathetic of us have had moments when our self-righteous indignation at someone else’s behavior has turned to shame when we get a better peek at their situation.

I have this one particular moment I flash back to when my brain decides I need a reminder of my imperfection. The film American Beauty came out shortly after I started my sophomore year in college, and I recall getting into the stupidest of pretentious arguments with a handful of my classmates (whose names I don’t even recall) in the dining hall. I hadn’t seen it yet. I’m fairly sure none of us had. Yet somehow I found myself defending the possibility that it might have artistic merit against their contention that Hollywood was, by definition, incapable of making something worthwhile. So far, so good, except insomuch as even participating in the argument makes me feel like I ought to have been calling things “philosophically self-evident.”

Where things went off the rails was the fact that I had recently heard something on NPR about Sam Shepard and managed to leave with the impression that American Beauty might have been an adaptation of a Sam Shepard play. I don’t know why I chose to bring this up. I wasn’t, and am not, terribly familiar with Sam Shepard’s oeuvre, and judging from the fact that they weren’t immediately sure I was wrong, they weren’t either. It’s an odd thing to fixate on. It’s trivial. It had no discernible direct consequences. And I’m sure it doesn’t crack the top ten of things I have reason to be ashamed of. But to this day, I’ll sometimes be walking along with my wife and out of nowhere, I’ll groan. And I won’t be able to explain to her what’s wrong, because what a silly thing to fixate on fifteen years later.

To stop Mr. Ford pointing out the wonders of Chislehurst a second time, I said to Veronica, “I like your mum.”

“Sounds like you’ve got a rival, Vron.”

But the past works like that. I have little doubt that I have casually crushed people’s feelings, but I don’t remember those times. If someone from my past approached me with an accusation, or even just a rueful memory, how would I react? Would I feel ashamed? Or would I get angry because that person is trying to make me into someone I don’t believe I am? How many people, met briefly on the phone or in the street, or remembered in the past, am I doing that to right now? There’s the obvious case of ex-girlfriends who I can’t help but see with all reasons we would never have worked out hanging in a cloud around them. But worse are the people I don’t even know well at all, don’t even remember. The infuriating couple at the next table, the douchey guy on the train. It took only a comment or a look or someone’s bad day to paint a back story for them they wouldn’t recognize.

A couple months ago I saw this play out a few times in quick succession online. The most prominent was the so-called “Diane in 7A” incident where a reality TV producer named Elan Gale live-tweeted his interaction with a misbehaving middle aged woman who was throwing a tantrum over a delayed flight. It was perfect, too perfect, and it wasn’t long before everyone was discussing it, whether laughing at Dianne’s behavior or expressing disapproval of the crass way that Elan responded to it. Soon a man came forward claiming to be a relative of Dianne. He explained that she was facing a terminal cancer diagnosis and that this would likely have been her last Thanksgiving, explaining some of her overwrought behavior. And for a moment, reading along, I felt ashamed. It was easy to imagine at first an entitled over-privileged air-traveler, something we’ve all seen plenty of. Then, equally easy to about face and imagine a woman dealing with crushing personal tragedy, caught up in a miniature media circus. Of course it unsurprisingly turned out that the whole thing was a hoax. What else did we expect from someone who makes his living manipulating the supposedly real into dramatized stories? What story do we imagine for him?

I didn’t want to solve Veronica, certainly not at this late date. She’d been a bloody difficult young woman forty years ago, and—on the evidence of this two-word, two-finger response—didn’t seem to have mellowed with age. That’s what I told myself firmly.

Though why should we expect age to mellow us? If it isn’t life’s business to reward merit, why should it be life’s business to give us warm, comfortable feelings toward its end? What possible evolutionary purpose could nostalgia serve?

As the internet brings us together, making it more likely that any two people in the world will have a fleeting interaction, we see this sort of thing happen more and more. Someone posts a picture or an anecdote (one I recall was of an older kid in a stroller) they think represents some trend they bemoan only to have someone who knows more background to come forward to plead for understanding (in this case stating that the kid in question had autism and that this was a coping mechanism). We’re simultaneously invited more and more frequently to guess at each other’s stories and given greater opportunities to know that our stories are being guessed at and to set the record straight. Or to have someone try to make us feel bad by making up a story.

So what are we to do? Judge not lest ye be judged? Stop trusting everything we believe about people? It’ll never happen. To function in society we need to make quick decisions about what to expect from people, lest we offend or be put in real danger. And we do it remarkably well, usually without realizing what we are doing. We read the little smiles, the twitches of the eyes and decide when it’s time to ask a question or when it’s time to keep your mouth shut. We guess who is going to lie to us because they can and who we can trust. We’re not always right, but giving up just means leaving human society. So perhaps all we can do is periodically sit back and reflect on our own lives and how little we know about our own stories, much less the stories of the people we meet along the way. And to be willing to listen to how different their story is from what we assumed, even if they keep telling us that we would never understand.