Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending has a lot packed in the short 150 or so pages.
Memory and history, responsibility and blame, deceit, misunderstandings, aging, guilt, remorse - and, of course, a safely passive coasting on the smooth sailing surface of life, occasionally interrupted by the tidal waves of unexpected upheavals and disturbances, just like Severn Bore, seen once by Tony Webster and Veronica.
"We live with such easy assumptions, don’t we? For instance, that memory equals events plus time. But it’s all much odder than this. Who was it said that memory is what we thought we’d forgotten? And it ought to be obvious to us that time doesn’t act as a fixative, rather as a solvent. But it’s not convenient — it’s not useful — to believe this; it doesn’t help us get on with our lives; so we ignore it."
It is the story of fickleness and subjectivity of memory that creates the unreliable histories we tell ourselves; the dissonance between what happened and what stories we choose to tell ourselves - because such unconscious lies are often what we just happen to need to feel alright about ourselves.
And so we construct our own memories and write our life stories the way it suits us.
"How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but — mainly — to ourselves."
It's the story that touches on allotting responsibility and blame - be it for the Great War or a breakup or a divorce or a suicide - and learn that the answers may not always be there. We can come up with a catchy and cheeky answers ('History is the lies of the winners', pretentiously and predictably states teenage Tony Webster with all the world-weariness of a sixteen-year-old) - but ultimately, the answers are never clear-cut, and everything is in the grey zone, and the realization is that of a sixty-year-old Tony:
"History isn’t the lies of the victors, as I once glibly assured Old Joe Hunt; I know that now. It’s more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated."
It's a melancholic reflection of the reality of aging and the little differences between 'settling for it' and 'accepting reality'. And, what's pathetically and sadly true, we fail to really grow and change at the end of our life stories - after all, Life is not really Literature. Yeah, it's not a book to read when you're feeling a bit down on yourself. Because at the end "what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed."
"That’s one of the central problems of history, isn’t it, sir? The question of subjective versus objective interpretation, the fact that we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us."
With this introduction, we take a dive into the mind of Tony Webster - a self-centered average guy who, like the rest of us, uses the subjectivity of memory to be the hero in his story, to be who he needs himself to be, to unconsciously tinker with the events until they seem just right. 'Yes, I remember exactly what happened!' is not that reliable, and Tony comes to learn that. Whether he actually takes something important from this experience - well, that's debatable.
"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 meet Tony at sixteen, through the recollection of his almost five decades older self. The older Tony constantly interrupts his own narration to remind us of the subjectivity of his memory, setting himself up as the ultimate unreliable narrator. This story resembles a coming-of-age book at the beginning (with all those pseudo- and not-so-pseudo-intellectual teenagers in the British prep school in the 1960s waxing on and on about philosophical matters with the smugness inherent to the adolescence) - but it turns out to be anything but.
"Discovering, for example, that as the witnesses to your life diminish, there is less corroboration, and therefore less certainty, as to what you are or have been. Even if you have assiduously kept records— in words, sound, pictures— you may find that you have attended to the wrong kind of record-keeping."
Tony Webster is pathetic, self-centered and self-righteous. His life did not turn out the way he thought it'd be ("This was another of our fears: that Life wouldn’t turn out to be like Literature.")- and he has been coasting through it, just an average guy leading an average life, far from the inspirations he may have had when back in his teens he was friends with a bright young philosopher (yes, a bit full of himself - but who isn't at that age?) Adrian Finn, who produces such pompous little gems as this one:
"History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation."
And then, a few years later, Tony's university girlfriend Veronica Ford(the one he views through the prism of his memories as a supreme bitch) dumped him and dated Adrian, and then Adrian committed suicide, and then there were four unexciting mediocre decades, and now the above ex-girlfriend's mother left Adrian's diary to Tony - but the ex-girlfriend is not willing to part with what Tony comes to view as his rightful legacy. And along the path to reclaim that diary Tony embarks on a quest to turn remorse into guilt and guilt into forgiveness - in the most self-centered way possible. Along the way he also toys with shouldering responsibility for what happened in the lives of Veronica and Adrian - but, as I see it, this over-estimation of his own importance is yet another one of his memory delusions and instead he may be on the sidelines of this story, regardless of what his unreliable memory tells him his life story should be.
"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. We live in time, it bounds us and defines us, and time is supposed to measure history, isn’t it? But if we can’t understand time, can’t grasp its mysteries of pace and progress, what chance do we have with history— even our own small, personal, largely undocumented piece of it?"
But maybe, just maybe, the aging Tony Webster will learn something from the trip to the past he takes on his quest to recover Adrian's journal. But ultimately it's not about Tony at all; Tony is just a slate on which to project the final thoughts, the final lines of this novel that harbor a bit of hope for the majority of us, floaters on the safe waters of life, who may or may not meet their Severn Bore.
"There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest."
This story is written with enough irony and melancholy to sustain a book of a much larger size. It's insanely quotable, to the point where you begin to suspect that certain lines were thrown in by the author with expectations of their future quotability factor. The language is smart and exquisite, sometimes a bit sardonic, sometimes a bit pedantic, and sometimes painfully genuine. Love this book or hate it - but you cannot deny that the writing is quite excellent.
And to close off, I want to go back to the image of the Severn Bore, the natural phenomenon that unsettled Tony back in his youth and still may be the disturbance that we all need from time to time. Great unrest, so to speak.
"I don't think I can properly convey the effect that moment had on me. It wasn't like a tornado or an earthquake (not that I'd witnessed either) – nature being violent and destructive, putting us in our place. It was more unsettling because it looked and felt quietly wrong, as if some small lever of the universe had been pressed, and here, just for these minutes, nature was reversed, and time with it."