I didn’t like Arthur and George. I was possibly the only reader in the universe who didn’t but there you go. So when Barnes’s new novel was published, I wasn’t first in the queue. Then I read the blurb:
Tony Webster and his clique first met Adrian Finn at school. Sex-hungry and book-hungry, they would navigate the girl-less sixth form together, trading in affectations, in-jokes, rumour and wit. Maybe Adrian was a little more serious than the others, certainly more intelligent, but they all swore to stay friends for life.
Now Tony is in middle age. He’s had a career and a single marriage, a calm divorce. He’s certainly never tried to hurt anybody. Memory, though, is imperfect. It can always throw up surprises, as a lawyer’s letter is about to prove.
The Sense of an Ending is the story of one man coming to terms with the mutable past.
And there you have the lure for me – now what was it again? – oh yes, the imperfections of memory. How could I forget? Very, very easily, now I’m in my 50’s. My short-term memory deteriorates at a pace. My long term memory is better though, of course, I’m well aware that the stories I tell may not coincide with those of the other participants. On that basis, I was more than fascinated by the premise of the mutable past.
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 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 to get on with our lives; so we ignore it.
The Sense of An Ending a marvel of compression encompassing some 40 years of Tony Webster’s life in just 150 pages. A first-person narrator, Tony is controlled editing the mundanity of life from his tale as it doesn’t belong to the story; the story of a memory triggered by the bequest to him of £500 and a diary. The bequestor is the mother of an ex-girlfriend, Veronica. The diary is that of a former schoolfriend and suicide, Adrian. It is in Veronica’s possession and she does not want to give it up.
Why would his ex-girlfriend’s mother remember him in her will, particularly as they only met during the one weekend Tony once stayed at Veronica’s family home? A rather awkward weekend during which Tony felt socially inferior and looked-down upon. Was he right to feel that way or was he simply projecting his own feelings of inadequacy (Veronica was certainly more intelligent than him) onto the behaviour of Veronica’s father and brother. Her mother was the only person who showed any warmth to Tony that weekend.
More intriguingly why would she wish to bequest Adrian’s diary to Tony to prove Aidrian was happy in his final months? Veronica’s reluctance to hand the diary over would be enough to drive a man crazy, but calm, genial, reasonable and vaguely boring Tony doesn’t do crazy. This is his plan:
I began my email campaign. I was determined to be polite, unoffendable, persistent, boring, friendly; in other words, to lie. Of course, it only takes a microsecond to delete an email, but it doesn’t take much longer to replace the one deleted. I would wear her down with niceness, but I would get Adrian’s diary.
It means, however, that Tony must re-engage with someone he has deleted from his history and he has no notions of the consequences that will result.
The past is lying in wait to ambush his perceptions of himself and to turn history on its head. It’s only when the full picture emerges (and what a kick to the stomach that delivers) that the clues, hidden in the stories Tony tells of his youth and even more so in those he has surpressed, become recognisable. Where does it leave him?
And no, it wasn’t shame I now felt, or guilt, but something rarer in my life and stronger than both: remorse. A feeling which is more complicated, curdled, and primeval. Whose chief characteristic is that nothing can be done about it: too much time has passed, too much damage has been done, for amends to be made.
And that leaves me hoping my own story doesn’t end that way.