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As efficient as a Swiss clock

February 20, 2014 25 comments

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes 2011 French title: Une fille, qui danse.

This month our Book Club picked The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. I had read reviews about it and knew one of the themes was memory. That’s all I remembered, how ironic.

Barnes_senseOur narrator is Tony, he’s in his sixties, retired and in the first part of the book, he relates his years in high school and university. He pictures his friendship with Alex and Colin and how Adrian came into the group. They went to college separately and tried to keep in touch. Tony studied in Bristol and stayed a year with his girlfriend Veronica and he even introduces her to his friends. They eventually break up and he later receives a letter from Adrian, saying he’s dating Veronica. After graduation, Tony leaves the UK to travel in America and when he returns, he learns that Adrian has committed suicide. He planned it at perfection and made of it a way of living and leaving according to his theories. Tony thinks highly of him to have put into practice all his reasoning about life and to have gone all the way through to be faithful to his principles.

In the second part, we fast forward to the present. Tony had a career, married Margaret, got a divorce, had a daughter Susie, who’s now in her thirties. He’s a grand-father and lives the orderly life of a common citizen. No ups and downs. He’s friend with his ex-wife. Small life, safe life, no big emotion. This comfort is disrupted when he receives a letter from an attorney saying that Veronica’s mother died and left him £500 and Adrian’s diary in her will. This leads Tony to meet with Veronica again and she shows him the spiteful letter he had sent to Adrian after he learnt he was with her. Tony is confronted with his younger self and the way his memory amended the events to picture him honourably. He feels ashamed and starts a crusade to atone his meanness.

This forced march down to memory lane won’t do him good.

Honestly, I’m not thrilled about The Sense of an Ending. Julian Barnes portrays beautifully the impact of ageing, explores with great intelligence the tricks our brain does to us. I have tons of quotes. The structure of the book is masterfully crafted. He drops clues here and there and everything makes sense in the end. Perfect construction. Perfect language. Perfect little thoughts about life. Too perfect to be lively. Too perfect to be true to life because life is messy. To me, it remained a sort of cold work of art, a designer suit perfectly cut but with visible seams.

It also felt like déjà vu. The ending, although I hadn’t seen it coming, is a bit stretched and clichéd. The guilt trip Tony is taking seems over the top. The poor man just takes himself too seriously. What a bore!

Sure, Julian Barnes made me think. I don’t imagine this book written by a younger author. Life experience seeps through every page and I wonder how much of himself Julian Barnes put into this.

After all, wasn’t ‘back then’ the Sixties? Yes it was, but as I said, it depended on where – and who – you were. If you’ll excuse a brief history lesson: most people didn’t experience ‘the Sixties’ until the Seventies. Which meant, logically, that most people in the Sixties were still experiencing the Fifties – or, in my case, bits of both decades side by side. Which made things rather confusing.

That’s what the Sixties were for my parents and that’s why they missed The Doors, Jimmy Hendrix, and Janis Joplin to listen to Frank Alamo or Sylvie Vartan.

All the thinking about memory was interesting but not really new.

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.

Yes, our mind transforms memories until what we recall faintly resembles the truth. And what is truth, really? Julian Barnes makes it sound a bad thing. However, without that coping mechanism, we wouldn’t survive to pain or shameful moments. We’d be hurting all the time, we wouldn’t move on. We’d all be a walking bundle of raw wounds.

Julian Barnes also seems to share with Romain Gary the idea that “truth dies young”, meaning that you see yourself and the world clearly when you’re young and everything goes downhill from there. Years bury your young self under layers of habits and resignation as you settle in life. In both cases, there’s nostalgia for adolescence and especially for these years of illusions and undefined future. Personally, I don’t miss that part of my life. Do I want to go back there and spend my days half-drowning in an ocean of shyness? No thanks, I’m better off now.

I do agree with Julian Barnes on a lot of things he writes and especially with that quote:

Yes indeed, if Tony had seen more clearly, acted more decisively, held to truer moral values, settled less easily for a passive peaceableness which he first called happiness and later contentment. If Tony hadn’t been fearful, hadn’t counted on the approval of others for his own self-approval … and so on, through a succession of hypotheticals leading to the final one: so, for instance, if Tony hadn’t been Tony.

For me, it’s no use regretting missed opportunities or thinking you didn’t live your life to your best potential. Because, who really sabotage themselves consciously? We all make what we think is the best decision at the moment we make it, we all let go of possibilities because we don’t have it in us to take a risk, face our families, risk pain or act out of character. If we hadn’t been ourselves…

There are lots of excellent things in that novel. If The Sense of an Ending were a human, it’d be a top model. Beautiful but aloof, perfect but a bit fake, so polished that it’s not real anymore. You know what? Top models don’t make me swoon.

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