My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Requisites upon finishing The Sense of an Ending:
1) Reread the closing paragraph
2) Revisit the equations
3) Reread the enumerations on page 1 and (this time) understand them
“We live in time - it holds us and molds us - but I never felt I understood it very well. And I'm not referring to theories about how it bends and doubles back, or may exist elsewhere in parallel versions. No, I mean ordinary, everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly: tick-tock, click-clock. Is there anything more plausible than a second hand? And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time's malleability. Some emotions speed it up, others slow it down; occasionally, it seems to go missing - until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return.”
A significant individual in Anthony ('Tony') Webster's "book-hungry, sex-hungry, meritocratic, anarchistic" youth is Adrian, his 'philosophical' friend who always "grasped life-and truth and morality, and art- more clearly" than the rest of his peers. Even after Tony goes to university and gets his first girlfriend - Veronica, whose family (esp. her mother, the enigmatic Mrs. Ford) he later meets - it is "Camus-quoting" Adrian (in Cambridge) that matters to him the most.
But Veronica and Adrian end up together and Tony has a bad case of sour grapes that extends to after his marriage and (amicable) divorce, prompting him to write a bitter, recriminating letter to the new couple. One day, he receives news of Adrian's suicide and is later notified that the late Mrs. Ford has left him money and Adrian's diary in her will, none of which makes sense to Tony. So Tony spends the remainder of the novel trying to uncover the truth from Veronica and retracing his confabulated memories, all the while harbouring a borderline concocted conception of Adrian, glorifying his death and attributing it to the most 'highest' of reasons (e.g. intense intellectual stimulation).
Victim to the "imperfections of memory [...and] inadequacies of documentation," Tony only comes to term with the rather banal reality at the end of the novel, by which time he concludes also that he himself is but"average at life; average at truth; morally average." He wonders,
“Had my life increased, or merely added to itself? There had been addition and subtraction in my life, but how much multiplication?”
But he can neither change his past or mend his errors, neither can he take back the scathing words in the letter he wrote or reduce the responsibility and remorse he feels,
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.
The way we make sense of the novel's ending is almost mathematical. Barnes drops us fragments along the way and we scamper along, piecing together our own 'sense' of the ending according to Tony's own "imposed meaning on what might or might not have happened;" only at the end do we realize, like Veronica did throughout, that Tony just didn't "get it" because he would "adjust, embellish, make sly cuts" to his accounts. And as Adrian had said,
That’s one of the central problems of history, isn’t it, sir? 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.”
In which case Tony is the historian and the history in question not that of WW1 as discussed in the lessons of his youth, but his own "small, personal, largely undocumented piece" of time. At the end he learns that “History isn't the lies of the victors" but "the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious or defeated” - like him.
Barnes keeps us, like Tony, on the edge, impatient to make sense of the unfurling past. So we follow Tony as he blunders through self-deception, irks Veronica and relies on his imperfect memory to unearth a reality that eventually turns out not the way he had idealized or assumed.
The novel ends by pithily encapsulating the 163 pages of the novel in a sentence:
There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond this there is great unrest.
Check, check and check.
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But time...how time first grounds us and then confounds us. We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imagined we were being responsible but we were only being cowardly. What we called realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things rather than facing them. Time...give us enough time and our best-supported decisions will seem wobbly, our certainties whimsical.”
“It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age: when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others.”
“You get towards the end of life - no, not life itself, but of something else: the end of any likelihood of change in that life. You are allowed a long moment of pause, time enough to ask the question: what else have I done wrong?”
“When you're young - when I was young - you want your emotions to be like the ones you read about in books. You want them to overturn your life, create and define a new reality. Later, I think, you want them to do something milder, something more practical: you want them to support your life as it is and has become. You want them to tell you that things are OK. And is there anything wrong with that?”
“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.”
“I certainly believe we all suffer damage, one way or another. How could we not,except in a world of perfect parents, siblings, neighbours, companions? And then there is the question on which so much depends, of how we react to the damage: whether we admit it or repress it,and how this affects our dealings with others.Some admit the damage, and try to mitigate it;some spend their lives trying to help others who are damaged; and there are those whose main concern is to avoid further damage to themselves, at whatever cost. And those are the ones who are ruthless, and the ones to be careful of.”
“This was another of our fears: that Life wouldn't turn out to be like Literature.”
“I know this much: that there is objective time, but also subjective time, the kind you wear on the inside of your wrist, next to where the pulse lies. And this personal time, which is the true time, is measured in your relationship to memory.”Here's a rather brilliant, eccentric metaphor:
“History is a raw onion sandwich, it just repeats, it burps. We've seen it again and again this year. Same old story, Same old oscillation between tyranny and rebellion, war and peace, prosperity and impoverishment”