Saturday, September 17, 2011

Misspeak, Memory

This appeared in today's The Indian Express


The nature and length of the novella as a form compel writers to pay close attention to matters of prose and craft. This is why the best of them have a hand-cut, gem-like quality, with ruminative — although patterned — first-person musings on a given theme. Such, certainly, is the case with Julian Barnes’ elegant, incisive The Sense of an Ending.

On the first page itself, the narrator affirms that “...what you end up remembering isn't always the same as what you have witnessed”. This, then, is an impressionistic record, one that's hedged by constant -- and sometimes overdone -- reminders that what we're reading is the narrator's self-serving memories of earlier times. It’s not just that he’s unreliable: he’s also all too aware of his unreliability.

This is a story is told by Tony Webster, now in his sixties. He recollects, first of all, his time in school and friendship with the charismatic, precocious new boy, Adrian Finn. Almost from the start, Tony and his circle seek out Adrian’s attention and approval, and then keep in touch after they go their separate ways. Inevitably, Tony’s pronouncements on the people in his life tell us more about him than about them. Time and again, he reminds us that this record of the past isn't what it appears to be on the surface: “You can infer past actions from current mental states”.

Tony continues with his account of his life: education in Bristol, his wooing of and short-lived relationship with girlfriend Veronica; and then, in brisk, economical paragraphs, his marriage, job in “arts administration”, children, divorce, and retirement. In sum, “some achievements and some disappointments”.

This is when, pulling off an audacious structural move, Barnes segues into another section, dealing with the narrator’s days in the evening of his life. Circumstances bring him together again with Veronica, who had taken up with Adrian after their break-up, and he’s compelled to examine and re-examine his past assumptions, step by step. He now has to make sense of an almost Wittgensteinian fragment from Adrian’s diary, as well as mull over his interactions with the older Veronica, to solve a mystery springing from his past. As she tells him more than once, he is someone who just “doesn’t get it.”

Tony’s self-deluded, emotionally repressed ways bring to mind other fictional characters with the same traits, notably John Dowell from Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier, as well as Stevens from Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. It's also not by coincidence that one of the characters is portrayed as reading a work by Viennese author Stefan Zweig, for this, too, is a book about a person who obsesses over yesterday’s actions and omissions, often rewriting events in his mind.

There’s an aphoristic, crafted quality to much of the book. At one point, for example, the narrator quotes Adrian in a phrase reflective of its theme: “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation”.  Elsewhere, in a passage reminiscent of Nothing to be Frightened of, Barnes’ earlier non-fiction deliberation on death and dying, Tony says, “…the longer life goes on, the fewer are those to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life”.

At barely 150 pages, The Sense of an Ending is a resonant reminder that one can be succinct, not sprawling, when it comes to creating a compelling fictional world. As a tightly wound meditation on the unreliability of memory and the ways in which we mislead ourselves, Barnes’ work shows that in the right hands, brevity is still a virtue. 

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