In 2011, Julian Barnes’ novel The Sense of an Ending won the Man Booker Prize for fiction and has been praised by critics for its depth, complexity and universal importance. The Independent describes the story as a “whodunit of memory and morality”, while Anita Brookner from the Daily Telegraph states that “its mystery is deeply embedded as the most archaic of memories”.
The story is told from the point of view of Tony Webster, who – now an elderly, retired man – looks back on his youth. From the book cover, you would think this is a coming of age story, telling the adventures of Tony and his clique, who were joined by the tranquil and brilliant Adrian:
“Sex-hungry and book hungry, they would navigate the girl-less sixth form together, trading in affectations, in-jokes, rumour and wit.”
Yet, the novel is so much more. It is the story of a man coming to terms with his past, trying to figure out how former actions, how apparent trivialities did not only shape himself and the people around him, but how they had unforeseeable impacts. It is an inductive digging through memories, a melancholic pondering over the past. But what are memories and how do they work? Memories, according to the novel, are nothing static but they are fluid, ever-changing and subjective.
“How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but — mainly — to ourselves.”
And the same as memories, time is malleable too; it “holds us and moulds us” and occasionally, “it seems to go missing – until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return” which makes memory even more obscure. How then can we figure out how the past shaped us, if our recollections of it are imprecise, flawed and subjective?
On September 23rd, I had the wonderful opportunity to listen to Julian Barnes, as he came to St Andrews to talk about his novel. It was a beautiful opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the novel, the role of the writer and the relation between the writer and his work. While it seemed that Barnes himself is also very occupied by the working of memories, the act of remembering and the subjectivity of the whole – thereby using a very entertaining chicken story to make his point – Julian Barnes insists that the characters of his books are not to be equated with the author. Many writers, according to Barnes, are much less sure about some things than the characters of their books are and in his case, Tony Webster has a much better impression of memory than he has.
Apart from talking about and reading from The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes offered some general advice to all those who aspire to become writers. A writer, he said, should first of all be a good reader. Beyond, there is no recipe that defines how to be a great author and he himself does not know where his originality arises from. Nevertheless, loving language, learning to read well, using writing as a way of self-discovery and trying to go unusual ways are some points that make a good writer.
The ideal reader, on the contrary, has clearly been defined by Barnes. He should be on the same side as the author; he should trust him, follow his guidance, laugh with him and understand him – we can only hope to become such readers and try to enjoy the thought provoking novel in the way he intended us to …
Image Credit: Charlotte Wirth
Quotes from: The Sense of Ending by Julian Barnes