April 28, 2012

The sense of an Ending

"You just don't get it"

Julian Barnes's Sense of an Ending is filled with quotations- glimpses. It starts with quoted memories- ends with staccato sentences- and an explanation of events that we have already been told is unsatisfactory. The book expresses in one hundred painful pages the life of a man- Tony- who had two real loves,  Veronica a student he met at University and Margerate who he met later and married and had a child with. This review will be thick with spoilers- it can hardly avoid it. The sense of an ending is about what ending means and what looking back is- the main character says at one point that as young people we always anticipate the desperation and sadness of growing old, but not that of looking back on youth- well this is a novel about looking back. Looking back through the haze at old relationships and old sadnesses and old disappointments- at our failures and our distress. And at the fact that even now, after all has been done, the memory fades and ultimately we 'just don't get it' even when its long gone.

I don't make much of a pretence to understand this book- in 100 pages it includes more ideas than most manage in three or four hundred. The nature of the book though talks about something that I'm fascinated by- the nature of history and the nature of memory. Those two things are related- from the first historian Herodotus who said that his history was written to make the deeds of famous Greeks and barbarians safe for the world. Herodotus expressed it first- but that aspiration remains a source of why we do history. We write biographies and think about individuals- not merely because we believe that individuals cause social change- but because in some sense history undoes death. The question that everyone who thinks seriously about the past thinks about ultimately is whether we are coating the past with lies. To what extent can we really remember- I think this of people I have lost in my own life, through death and folly, they slowly slip down into sorrow. The smile I fell in love with, the glint of intelligence in the eye, the smiling eyes- all gone into everlasting fog.

Death and folly are two words that marry together and spend their time in this novel entertwined in each other's arms. Thanatos and Eros, according to Tony's friend Adrian, are tossed in battle, one against the other until the end of time and, as one quote from the novel, from Elliot, puts it are all that there really is to life. Memory though provides an inadequate guide to these things. Tony remembers what he chooses to remember. We all do this. Barnes captures the way that we have to tell narratives in order to ensure that we can survive events. That girl that Tony loved, he has to forget so that he can forget the fact that they broke up. Who has not been there- rhetorically convincing themselves that the error that they made was insignificant. The choice of memory, the framing of narratives is something that all historians and politicians know by instinct, we forget that we apply this to our real lives. Our lives are not realities- they are constructed- the road not taken rears ahead in our thought and is associated with either pain or pleasure, depending on our self dramatisation.

History is therefore meaningless unrest- the tale of a fool, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Again Barnes reminds us that this is not true. Our narratives, Tony's narratives are false but that does not mean that there is not a narrative- it just means it is inaccessible to us. There is a narrative in this novel: something horrific happened. But you won't know at the end what that something is. It is veiled in darkness. Similarly a suicide at the beggining of the book invites questions about why it happened- and those questions remain unanswered. Thinking again by the end of the book, Tony realises that the past can be interrogated in different ways. The suicide of a boy who made his girlfriend pregnant is significant to Tony as an adolescent because he wants to know about the boy and why he did it, by the end of the novel he is interested in the girl and how she coped. The questions are all legitimate- there are answers but without the dead boy, the parents who are long dead, even the girl herself- those answers have gone. A history master argues with Adrian about the meaning of these events- Adrian says that it is the reports of the individuals that decide what happened, the master the actions- neither and both are right. To some extent, the only way to know what has happened is to know what happened next- if Tony is guilty then that is right.

Guilt and responsibility depend on history, in Roman law it was intention that made a crime, a crime. I can only be responsible or guilty for things that have happened, not things as they might be after an act I commit in the future. As an implication, as we grow older we become more and more guilty. Moral personality is deeply involved in the novel. Who is to blame depends on the questions that we ask. If the past is uncertain, then so is moral responsibility. We live in a world without a view from nowhere, and that is all there is to say. This novel leaves me exhausted and pondering, personally, my own folly and my own death. Suicide said Camus is the most fundemental philosophical question- despite Camus's argument, I think Barnes goes further- we don't know what happens and why- what we can only know is that the philosophical subject is history, and the philosophical moment is historical.


Luxembourg said...

Fantastic read. When I was in grad school in the 90s I slogged through Wittgenstein's Mistress and other postmodern, philosophically driven works - and while many were intellectually interesting, few were truly griping stories. Fun for the brain, but hollow for the heart. Barnes' work is the real deal - a fantastically intelligent postmodern novella, complete with an unreliable narrator, tricks of time, and philosophical uncertainty about the nature of reality - that holds true to the primal human need for a compelling, well-plotted story about flesh and blood characters. In the end, Barnes made me care about the characters, and also reflect on the choices in my own life.