Thursday, April 19, 2012

Just finished reading...

...the winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize, THE SENSE OF AN ENDING by British author Julian Barnes.

Julian Barnes’ slim volume might only be 163 pages long, but it packs a life time of narrative experience and then some. It is ironic and deliberate that such a small tome should be about memory and the problems memory presents: its instability, its randomness, its untrustworthiness. We all remember events differently but what we often don’t stop to think about is that this act/ function informs our attitudes toward everything around us, and shapes our personalities. The instrument doing the remembering is not an objective machine, recording sights or sounds, but a subjective creature, recording feelings along with those sights and sounds. There is no right or wrong; our feelings are our own. Wherever we go, there we are. We can’t escape ourselves.

The story of THE SENSE OF AN ENDING seems to be simple enough. In Part One of this two-part story, we follow our narrator Tony through his life in England, his youth, his school chums, a difficult first relationship. But he is not writing as these things happen. He is writing his memoirs as a grown man, a man who is on the downhill side of his life, remembering—or struggling to remember—these people, places, and things. And Barnes has Tony tell us several times and in several different ways that memory is not to be trusted. Memory can play games. Memory can embellish, twist, add or subtract while keeping the premise similar enough to make one think one is recalling all with clarity. It is as if Tony is telling us, “Don’t trust what I am telling you. Don’t believe me.”

In Part Two, we see the return of a handful of these people and places and we learn that Tony was certainly selective in his memories. These people return to Tony’s life in a not-too pleasant way as he is forced to grapple with his own perceptions vs. the reality of his past. Like a detective, Tony is presented with a situation…a riddle he must solve. And we are right there with him both because of the way Barnes presents the information and because of the information itself. We must piece together what we are given like a jigsaw puzzle. We must sift for clues, for the complicated chain of cause and effect, through the incomplete messiness of a human life, through the remains of what we know. I must say—and this is important—that it is much like sifting through rubble after a bomb. I think this is the point of the book made manifest for us, the readers. If this book is about the instability of memory, what we remember and how we color facts with the filter of our minds, then we are living proof of this as we go back and try to remember the events, what happened (according to Tony), who said what and when. It is exactly the same effect, conversely, with Proust’s IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME, a story about an enormous cast of characters, an avalanche of places and people who orbit Proust’s narrator, and his long life seeing these people coming and going, seeing changes, having illusions ripped away from reality… the sense of a life, the sense of time, the sense of existence itself. The physical length of Proust’s masterpiece is an element of the book as much as anything written inside it. The feeling we get after completing the journey with Proust’s narrator fills us with the same feeling the narrator has after exhaustively living such a life. That feeling could not have been replicated in a single novel of medium length. The actual physical manifestation of the book itself supports the psychological ideas it contains.

And so it is with Barnes’ short, sparse tale. We are left with gaps, holes, and questions. And just like life, many of these questions will never be answered. One must analyze literature, prose, and poetry based solely on what the author has presented. It is tempting, after reading this book, to fly off with theories and “what-ifs” to fill these gaps, to answer these questions. But I am a firm believer in looking at what the author has given us. He gave us what he wanted us to know for a reason. Books—literature, poetry—are not accidents. And Barnes has created a tale that, uncomfortable as it might be, leaves us unsettled, with nagging questions. That is the state we leave Tony in when we close the book. It is called THE SENSE OF AN ENDING after all… we have the sense of an ending, but not a true ending. As it goes for us all.

Recommend? Yes.

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