Within the first 20 pages of “The Sense of an Ending,’’ author Julian Barnes explicitly maps out the journey on which we’re embarking in this brief, beautiful, Man Booker Prize-winning novel.
Four friends, English schoolboys, are in history class, where they are asked to define this intellectual pursuit. “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation,’’ declares Adrian Finn, one of the four, a brilliant, somewhat mysterious, and revered young man whom we rarely see on the page, but who plays a major role in the story. “That’s one of the central problems of history, isn’t it, sir?’’ he elaborates at another point, “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.’’
The historian in this case is the book’s narrator, Tony Webster, now in his 60s, and the first half of the novel is his version of his brief youthful friendship with Adrian, and with Veronica Ford, his first real girlfriend. He and Veronica meet in college, go out for a couple of years, then break up. Soon after, she takes up with Adrian, who formally seeks Tony’s approval to date her. “As far as I remember,’’ the aging narrator recalls, “I told him pretty much what I thought of their joint moral scruples. I also advised him to be prudent, because in my opinion Veronica had suffered damage a long way back. Then I wished him good luck . . . and decided that the two of them were now out of my life forever.’’
They do indeed disappear from Tony’s life. Adrian commits suicide a couple of years later, but Tony’s life follows a much less dramatic course. He travels around after college, has another girlfriend, then marries Margaret. He has a quiet career as an arts administrator, fathers a daughter, now grown, with two children of her own. He and Margaret divorce but remain friends; he retires, has women friends, and occasional visits with his grandchildren. In short, he leads the “peaceable’’ life to which he aspired, and describes it to us in a voice that is wry and seemingly self-aware.
But just as Barnes signaled at the book’s opening, despite his best efforts to provide us with “the history of the historian,’’ Tony’s memories are far from infallible. When he receives a letter from an estate lawyer indicating that Veronica’s late mother has bequeathed him 500 pounds and Adrian’s diary, he is forced to once again seek out Veronica and revisit his past. In doing so, he discovers that, “as the witnesses to your life diminish, there is less corroboration, and therefore less certainty, as to what you are or have been.’’
That fundamentally chilling question - Am I the person I think I am? - turns out to be a surprisingly suspenseful one. It leads Tony to comb through his own narrative, surfacing new memories and holding old ones up to the light of a mature and self-critical gaze. His initially rueful voice becomes increasingly remorseful as he asks, “What did I know of life, I who had lived so carefully?’’ His memory of a nighttime trip to the River Severn to witness the bore, a giant incoming tidal wave that flows against the river’s current, gains new resonance. For Tony, submersed in memory, time is reversed, and recognition of his past cruelties comes crashing over his placid present.
Tony is what literary critics refer to as an “unreliable narrator,’’ someone whose account is not to be trusted. But as Barnes so elegantly and poignantly reveals, we are all unreliable narrators, redeemed not by the accuracy of our memories but by our willingness to question them.Julie Wittes Schlack, a Cambridge-based writer, can be reached at email@example.com.