The Sense Of An Ending by Julian Barnes

TSOAE(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

This book is beautifully written. Also, and I rarely comment on this, the book is nicely printed and pleasant to handle.

It’s a meditation on memory. We all perceive things differently. I rarely meet up with old friends – except at funerals. With the advent of Facebook and Friends reunited, it has become very easy to trace people from our past. But I am not sure that this is a good idea. They remember things differently. What advantage is there in reminiscing? We can’t change anything once it has happened.

Teenage boys like to appear suave. The clever ones discuss philosophy and try to get one up on their teachers. It can be quite endearing but, for those of us who have been teachers, it all becomes rather predictable and boring. E.g.: “What is history? Any thoughts, Webster?’

‘History is the lies of the victors,’ I replied, a little too quickly.

‘Yes, I was rather afraid you’d say that. Well, as long as you remember that it is also the self-delusions of the defeated. …

‘Finn?’

‘”History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.” (quoting Patrick Lagrange)”

“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”

Along with their typically abstract musing about time and history and memory, there’s a sense of mystery that runs through the book.

Suicide always leaves lots of loose ends that keep one wondering what part we may have played in it and knowing that we will never ever know for sure.

Some suggest that Tony is gay. I doubt it. However, that was my initial reason for reading this book since another gay book group had chosen it recently.

One reviewer doubted that the term ‘control freak’ existed when Tony was a student. Well, it started to be used in the late 1960s so it’s just possible. Or, given that the narrative is largely made up of Tony’s memories, it could be that he was using the term retrospectively.

The ending confuses some people but it’s ingenious.

Quotations:

“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.”

a “two-word, two-finger response”

“This was another of our fears: that Life wouldn’t turn out to be like Literature…..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?… Does character develop over time? In novels, of course it does: otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a story. But in life? I sometimes wonder. Our attitudes and opinions change, we develop new habits and eccentricities; but that’s something different, more like decoration. Perhaps character resembles intelligence, except that character peaks a little later: between twenty and thirty, say. And after that, we’re just stuck with what we’ve got. We’re on our own. If so, that would explain a lot of lives, wouldn’t it? And also – if this isn’t too grand a word – our tragedy….. I remember a period in late adolescence when my mind would make itself drunk with images of adventurousness. This is how it will be when I grow up. I shall go there, do this, discover that, love her, and then her and her and her. I shall live as people in novels live and have lived. Which ones I was not sure, only that passion and danger, ecstasy and despair (but then more ecstasy) would be in attendance. However…who said that thing about “the littleness of life that art exaggerates”? There was a moment in my late twenties when I admitted that my adventurousness had long since petered out. I would never do those things adolescence had dreamt about. Instead, I mowed my lawn, I took holidays, I had my life….“Novels tell us the most truth about life: what it is, how we live it, what it might be for, how we enjoy and value it, and how we lose it…..“This was another of our fears: that Life wouldn’t turn out to be like Literature. Look at our parents–were they the stuff of Literature? At best, they might aspire to the condition of onlookers and bystanders, part of a social backdrop against which real, true, important things could happen. Like what? The things Literature was about: Love, sex, morality, friendship, happiness, suffering, betrayal, adultery, good and evil, heroes and villains, guilt and innocence, ambition, power, justice, revolution, war, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, the individual against society, success and failure, murder, suicide, death, God.”

`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.”

“What you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.”

“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.”

“We live in time – it holds us and moulds 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.”

“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.”

“Yes, of course we were pretentious — what else is youth for?”

“Sometimes I think the purpose of life is to reconcile us to its eventual loss by wearing us down, by proving, however long it takes, that life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”

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.”

“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.”

“History isn’t the lies of the victors, as I once glibly assured Old Joe Hunt; I know that now. It’s more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious or defeated.”

“And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time’s malleability.”

“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.”

“I thought of the things that had happened to me over the years, and of how little I had made happen.”

“I had wanted life not to bother me too much, and had succeeded – and how pitiful that was.”

“And no, it wasn’t shame I now felt, or guilt, but something rarer in my life and stronger than both: remorse. A feeling which is more complicated, curdled, and primeval. 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.”

“What did I know of life, I who had lived so carefully? Who had neither won nor lost, but just let life happen to him? Who had the usual ambitions and settled all too quickly for them not being realised? Who avoided being hurt and called it a capacity for survival? Who paid his bills, stayed on good terms with everyone as far as possible, for whom ecstasy and despair soon became just words once read in novels? One whose self-rebukes never really inflicted pain? Well, there was all this to reflect upon, while I endured a special kind of remorse: a hurt inflicted at long last on one who always thought he knew how to avoid being hurt – and inflicted for precisely that reason.”

“The more you learn, the less you fear. “Learn” not in the sense of academic study, but in the practical understanding of life.”

“Also, when you are young, you think you can predict the likely pains and bleaknesses that age might bring. You imagine yourself being lonely, divorced, widowed; children growing away from you, friends dying. You imagine the loss of status, the loss of desire – and desirability. You may go further and consider your own approaching death, which, despite what company you may muster, can only be faced alone. But all this is looking ahead. What you fail to do is look ahead, and then imagine yourself looking back from the future point. Learning the new emotions that time brings. Discovering, for example, that as the witnesses to your life diminish, there is less corroboration, and therefore less certainty, as to what you are or have been. Even if you have assiduously kept records – in words, sound, pictures – you may find that you have attended to the wrong kind of record-keeping. What was the line Adrian used to quote? ‘History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”

“Life seemed even more of a guessing game than usual.”

“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.”

“In my terms, I settled for the realities of life, and submitted to its necessities: if this, then that, and so the years passed. In Adrian’s terms, I gave up on life, gave up on examining it, took it as it came. And so, for the first time, I began to feel a more general remorse – a feeling somewhere between self-pity and self-hatred – about my whole life. All of it. I had lost the friends of my youth. I had lost the love of my wife. I had abandoned the ambitions I had entertained. I had wanted life not to bother me too much, and had succeeded – and how pitiful that was.”

“Later on in life, you expect a bit of rest, don’t you? You think you deserve it. I did, anyway. But then you begin to understand that the reward of merit is not life’s business.”

“But I’ve been turning over in my mind the question of nostalgia, and whether I suffer from it. I certainly don’t get soggy at the memory of some childhood knickknack; nor do I want to deceive myself sentimentally about something that wasn’t even true at the time—love of the old school, and so on. But if nostalgia means the powerful recollection of strong emotions—and a regret that such feelings are no longer present in our lives—then I plead guilty.”

“He had a better mind and a more rigorous temperament than me; he thought logically, and then acted on the conclusion of logical thought. Whereas most of us, I suspect, do the opposite: we make an instinctive decision, then build up an infrastructure of reasoning to justify it. And call the result common sense.”

“In those days, we imagined ourselves as being kept in some kind of holding pen, waiting to be released into our lives. And when the moment came, our lives — and time itself — would speed up. How were we to know that our lives had in any case begun, that some advantage had already been gained, some damage already inflicted? Also, that our release would only be into a larger holding pen, whose boundaries would be at first undiscernible.”

“Whisky, I find, helps clarity of thought. And reduces pain. It has the additional virtue of making you drunk or, if taken in sufficient quantity, very drunk.”

“There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond this there is great unrest.”

“Some of the freckles I once loved are now closer to liver spots. But it’s still the eyes we look at, isn’t it? That’s where we found the other person, and find them still.”

“The next day, when I was sober, I thought again about the three of us, and about time’s many paradoxes. For instance: that when we are young and sensitive, we are also at our most hurtful; whereas when the blood begins to slow, when we feel less sharply, when we are more armoured and have learnt how to bear hurt, we tread more carefully.”

“When you are in your twenties, even if you’re confused and uncertain about your aims and purposes, you have a strong sense of what life itself is, and of what you in life are, and might become. Later.. later there is more uncertainty, more overlapping, more backtracking, more false memories. Back then, you can remember your short life in its entirety. Later, the memory becomes a thing of shreds and patches.”

“I have at times tried to imagine the despair which leads to suicide, attempted to conjure up the slew and slop of darkness in which only death appears as a pinprick of light: in other words, the exact opposite of the normal condition of life.”

“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. So when this strange this happened – when these new memories suddenly came upon me – it was as if, for that moment, time had been placed in reverse. As if, for that moment, the river ran upstream.”

“Discovering, for example, that as witnesses to your life diminish, there is less corroboration, and therefore less certainty, as to what you are or have been.

“When we’re young, everyone over the age of thirty looks middle-aged, everyone over fifty antique. And time, as it goes by, confirms that we weren’t that wrong. Those little age differentials, so crucial and so gross when we are young erode. We end up all belonging to the same category, that of the non-young. I’ve never much minded this myself.”

“Though why should we expect age to mellow us? If it isn’t life’s business to reward merit, why should it be life’s business to give us warm comfortable feelings towards its end? What possible evolutionary purpose could nostalgia serve?”

“I remember laughing with relief that the same old adolescent boredom goes on from generation to generation. …the words took me back to my own years of stagnancy, and that terrible waiting for life to begin. ”

“In those years before mobile phones, email and Skype, travelers depended on the rudimentary communications system known as the postcard. Other methods–the long-distance phone call, the telegram–were marked “For Emergency Use Only.” So my parents waved me off into the unknown, and their news bulletins about me would have been restricted to “Yes, he’s arrived safely,”and “Last time we heard he was in Oregon,” and “We expect him back in a few weeks.” I’m not saying this was necessarily better, let alone more character-forming; just that in my case it probably helped not to have my parents a button’s touch away, spilling out anxieties and long-range weather forecasts, warning me against floods, epidemics and psychos who preyed on backpackers…..Back then, things were plainer: less money, no electronic devices, little fashion tyranny, no girlfriends. There was nothing to distract us from our human and filial duty which was to study, pass exams, use those qualifications to find a job, and then put together a way of life unthreateningly fuller than that of our parents, who would approve, while privately comparing it to their own earlier lives, which had been simpler, and therefore superior…..“Back in ‘my day’ – though I didn’t claim ownership of it at the time, this is what used to happen: you met a girl, you were attracted to her, you tried to ingratiate yourself, you would invite her to a couple of social events – for instance the pub – and then ask her out on her own, then again, and after a goodnight kiss of variable heat, you were somehow, officially, ‘going out’ with her. Only when you were semi-publicly committed did you discover what her sexual policy might be. And sometimes this meant her body would be as tightly guarded as a fisheries exclusion zone.”

“Someone once said that his favourite times in history were when things were collapsing, because that meant something new was being born. Does this make any sense if we apply it to our individual lives? To die when something new is being born – even if that something new is our very own self? Because just as all political and historical change sooner or later disappointments, so does adulthood. So does life. Sometimes I think the purpose of life is to reconcile us to its eventual loss by wearing us down, by proving, however long it takes, that life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”

“But cockteasing is also a metaphor: she is someone who will manipulate your inner self while holding hers back from you.”

“Perhaps I just feel safer with the history that’s been more or less agreed upon. Or perhaps it’s that same paradox again: the history that happens underneath our noses ought to be the clearest, and yet it’s the most deliquescent. We live in time, it bounds us and defines us, and time is supposed to measure history, isn’t it? But if we can’t understand time, can’t grasp its mysteries of pace and progress, what chance do we have with history – even our own small, personal, largely undocumented piece of it?

“In the letter he left for the coroner he had explained his reasoning (for suicide): that life is a gift bestowed without anyone asking for it; that the thinking person has a philosophical duty to examine both the nature of life and the conditions it comes with; and that if this person decides to renounce the gift no one asks for, it is the moral and human duty to act on the consequences of that decision. … Alex showed me a clipping from the Cambridge Evening News. ‘Tragic Death of “Promising” Young Man.’ … The verdict of the coroner’s inquest had been that Adrian Flinn (22) had killed himself ‘while the balance of his mind was disturbed.’ … The law, and society, and religion all said it was impossible to be sane, healthy, and kill yourself. Perhaps those authorities feared that the suicide’s reasoning might impugn the nature and value of life as organised by the state which paid the coroner?”

“I remember, in no particular order:
– a shiny inner wrist;
– steam rising from a wet sink as a hot frying pan is laughingly tossed into it;
– gouts of sperm circling a plughole, before being sluiced down the full length of a tall house;
– a river rushing nonsensically upstream, its wave and wash lit by half a dozen chasing torchbeams;
– another river, broad and grey, the direction of its flow disguised by a stiff wind exciting the surface;
– bathwater long gone cold behind a locked door. This last isn’t something I actually saw, but what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.”

“When we are young and sensitive, we are also at our most hurtful; whereas when the blood begins to slow, when we feel less sharply, when we are more armoured and have learnt how to bear hurt, we tread more carefully.”

“Adrian’s fragment also refers to the question of responsibility: whether there’s a chain of it, or whether we draw the concept more narrowly. I’m all for drawing it narrowly. Sorry, no, you can’t blame your dead parents, or having brothers and sisters, or not having them, or your genes, or society, or whatever – not in normal circumstances. Start with the notion that yours is the sole responsibility unless there’s powerful evidence to the contrary.”

“When you are in your twenties, even if you’re confused and uncertain about your aims and purposes, you have a strong sense of what life itself is, and of what you in life are, and might become. Later…later there is more uncertainty, more overlapping, more backtracking, more false memories. Back then, you can remember your short life in its entirety. Later, the memory becomes a thing of shreds and patches. It’s a bit like the black box aeroplanes carry to record what happens in a crash. If nothing goes wrong, the tape erases itself. So if you do crash, it’s obvious why you did; if you don’t, then the log of your journey is much less clear.”

“Some Englishman once said marriage is a long dull meal with pudding served first”

“The law, and society, and religion all said it was impossible to be sane, healthy, and kill yourself. Perhaps those authorities feared that the suicide‟s reasoning might impugn the nature and value of life as organised by the state which paid the coroner? And then, since you had been declared temporarily mad, your reasons for killing yourself were also assumed to be mad. So I doubt anyone paid much attention to Adrian‟s argument, with its references to philosophers ancient and modern, about the superiority of the intervening act over the unworthy passivity of merely letting life happen to you.”

“For most of us, the first experience of love, even if it doesn’t work out-perhaps especially when it doesn’t work out-promises that here is the thing that validates, that vindicates life.”

“Those little age differentials, so crucial and so gross when we are young, erode. We end up belonging to the same category, that of the non-young. I’ve never much minded this myself.”

“After a long analysis of Robson’s suicide, we concluded that it could only be considered philosophical in an arithmetical sense of the term: he, being about to cause an increase of one in the human population, had decided it was his ethical duty to keep the planet’s numbers constant.”

“You may say, But wasn’t this the Sixties? Yes, but only for some people, only in certain parts of the country.”

“You can take Lucas to watch football when he’s older,’ she once told me. Ah, the rheumy-eyed grandpa on the terraces inducting the lad into the mysteries of soccer: how to loathe people wearing different coloured shirts, how to feign injury, how to blow your snot on to the pitch – See, son, you press hard on one nostril to close it, and explode the green stuff out of the other. How to be vain and overpaid and have your best years behind you before you’ve even understood what life’s about. Oh yes, I look forward to taking Lucas to the football.”

“… forty’s nothing, at fifty you’re in your prime, sixty’s the new forty, and so on.”

“….in this country shadings of class resist time longer than differentials in age”

“If I can’t be sure of the actual events any more, I can at least be true to the impressions those facts left.”

“It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age,” Tony says, “when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others.”

“It seemed to us philosophically self-evident that suicide was every free person’s right: a logical act when faced with illness or senility; a heroic one when faced with torture or the avoidable deaths of others; a glamourous one in the fury of dissappointed love (see: Great Literature).”

“If I hadn’t decided on cremation and a scattering, I could have used the phrase as an epitaph on a chunk of stone or marble: “Tony Webster—He Never Got It.” But that would be too melodramatic, even self-pitying. How about “He’s on His Own Now”? That would be better, truer. Or maybe I’ll stick with: “Every Day Is Sunday.”

“Our parents thought we might be corrupted by one another into becoming whatever it was they most feared: an incorrigible masturbator, a winsome homosexual, a recklessly impregnatory libertine. On our behalf they dreaded the closeness of adolescent friendship, the predatory behaviour of strangers on trains, the lure of the wrong kind of girl. How far their anxieties outran our experience.”

“I settled into a contented routine of working, spending my free time with Veronica and, back in my student room, wanking explosively to fantasies of her splayed beneath me or arched above me. Daily intimacy made me proud of knowing about make-up, clothes policy, the feminine razor, and the mystery and consequences of a woman’s periods. I found myself envying this regular reminder of something so wholly female and defining, so connected to the great cycle of nature.”

“You like this stuff?’ she asked neutrally. ‘Good to dance to,’ I replied, a little defensively. ‘Do you dance to it? Here? In your room? By yourself?’ ‘No, not really.’ Though of course I did.”

“you find yourself repeating, ‘They grow up so quickly, don’t they?’ when all you really mean is: time goes faster for me nowadays.”

“historians need to treat a participant’s own explanation of events with a certain scepticism. It is often the statement made with an eye to the future that is the most suspect.”

return to the home page

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: