“The Sense of an Ending”, Julian Barnes: Memory, Memento Mori

the sense of an ending julian barnes cover imageJulian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending is a powerful and touching read. The book so honestly and elegantly elucidates the nature of memory and nostalgia that reading it, even at the tender age of 21, was a harrowing experience. In essence, The Sense of an Ending is an exploration of memory: how it is formed, how it shapes us, and how it betrays us.

The Sense of an Ending is written from the perspective of Tony Webster as he reflects on a relationships that shaped his life. The narrative – at least in Part One – is written as a recollection. But not a factual recollection. Tony concedes that Part One is made up of his imperfect, shabby memories which, even as he writes, he realises are inaccurate. He describes them as

a few incidents that have grown into anecdotes, to some approximate memories which time has deformed into certainty. If I can’t be sure of the actual events any more, I can at least be true to the impression those facts left. That’s the best I can manage.

And so the narrative voice brings us face-to-face with the shoddy reality of one’s own memory, prompting me at least to consider my experiences of having my own memories proven wrong.

For example, I’ve recently had the pleasant experience of hanging out more with a former flame of mine. Ex-girlfriend would perhaps be too strong, but it would be in the right ballpark. (As it happens, Part Two of The Sense of an Ending is about Tony’s hanging out with his former flame…but I digress). Recently she and I reminisced about our break-up. We had in common many memories: on Adelaide Uni’s Barr Smith Lawns, mid-afternoon, a summer day, sitting down against the short wall. But we differed on some major details. As I recalled it, we had broken up because I was too committed to climate activism. As she recalled it, a friend of hers had misled her into thinking that I’d been screwing her around. Also, she pointed out, we were on different sexual planes.

Adelaide uni's barr smith lawns

Barr Smith Lawns – where many a love was born, and many a love perished.

This was a revelation for me! Not only was my memory wrong, but I had systematically embedded the fallacious memory each time I consciously recalled the event and told a different person. So what I was remembering wasn’t actually the event but my reconstruction of it. Over time my memory of the break-up itself had faded, but I could remember my memory of the memory…and that became my past.

Similarly, The Sense of an Ending is Tony’s recount of his young romance with one Veronica, yet it is embellished by his contemporary revelations regarding the flaws in this memory. In the course of the novel he recounts a particular anodyne letter he wrote her, but then later comes to realise that the letter was in fact cruel and vexatious, “My younger self had come back to shock my older self with what that self had been, or was, or was sometimes capable of being.” His memory had acted to preserve his sense of decency and hide from his present self the petty actions of his past.

Episodes like these gradually undermine Tony’s confidence in his own recall, and he soon speaks more guardedly with an awareness of the tricks his memory might play: “In my mind,” he recalls, “this was the beginning of the end of our relationship. Or have I just remembered it this way to make it seem so, and to apportion blame?” (emphasis added). With this, Barnes’ seems to be challenging us to consider the self-serving nature of our own memories, to reflect upon how we might have sanitised our own pasts in an effort to make our present more bearable.
A picture of me with my girlfriend in year 8. we both look quite young. We are dressed formally. Key experiences in my past are remembered as a handful of moments, which I remember as tableaux: two sleeping bags like spokes in a wheel holding young people whispering into the night; a dinner of organic pizza after months apart; a broken-hearted friend crying beside me on a public stool. Like an amateur art restorationist I track down these memories and touch them up, adding daubs of emotion where time has faded them. And, over time, inevitably, they become shadows, copies of copies, the grandchildren of the original memory itself. Inevitably something is lost in this process. Cue Barnes:

…our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but – mainly – to ourselves.

The Sense of an Ending reminds us of the uncertainty of memory and cautions us against drinking too pensively nostalgia’s nepenthe. Julian Barnes’ has achieved something remarkable with this text, creating a work that is honest in its inaccuracy, that is genuine in its falsehood. As I try to resource my identity by making a quarry of my past, I’m wary now, thanks to The Sense of an Ending, of the folly of memory.

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