Novel explores truth of memory and regret

Henry Clayton Wickham

“History is the lies of the victors,” says Tony Webster, the protagonist of Julian Barnes’ novel, The Sense of an Ending. Webster recalls telling his teacher this on his last day of prep school some 50 years ago. But after a happy, if unexciting marriage, a daughter, two grandchildren and an amicable divorce, history feels more like “the memories of survivors,” those countless ordinary people who, like Webster, are not victorious or defeated.

When a strange will gifts him the diary of his tragically brilliant prep-school friend Adrian, Webster returns to memories of his school days and begins to reconsider Adrian’s suicide and his relationship with Veronica, a college girlfriend. In the process, Webster discovers how much of his youth he has altered, ignored or misinterpreted in what Veronica once called his “instinct for self-preservation.”

In the first half of the novel, Webster shapes a story using the few vivid memories lingering from his school days, one he admits is probably biased and inaccurate. “School is where it all began,” he says, “so I need to return briefly to a few incidents that have grown into anecdotes, to some approximate memories which time has deformed into certainty.”

With such a preface, Webster’s establishes himself as unreliable, and becomes more so as odd gaps and inconsistencies crop up throughout the narrative.

Webster’s witty, self-deprecating account of his college years is entertaining in itself, especially when he remembers his sexual frustration — “It was the sixties, but only for some people, only in certain parts of the country,” he says. But, as Webster continues it becomes clear that author Barnes is doing more than just telling a story of lost youth. Certain incidents don’t add up.

A strange weekend spent with Veronica’s posh family, Webster and Veronica’s spiteful separation and the relationship that developed between Adrian and Veronica months before Adrian’s suicide all seem part of the same puzzle.

In the second part of the novel, Barnes affirms the incompleteness of Webster’s story and throws his narrator into a full-fledged mystery which questions the nature of memory and how it affects us. Memory and regret, Barnes suggests, are time’s greatest mysteries. They shape us, and, in old age, they change the current of our lives, directing us back to memories of youth.

The Sense of an Ending is a rich, intelligent rumination on time, memory, age and regret. In its best moments, most of which occur in part one, it is poignant, sad and funny, offering unsettling insights into the quotidian facets of our lives. The second half of the novel, however, does not live up to the first. Emotional intensity sometimes lags as Webster mulls over his past, and some of the events that drive the narrative toward its resolution seem forced and lack significance in the greater context of the narrative.

Printed on October 10, 2011 as: Mystery of memory explored as protagonist recalls long life