memory and the sense of an ending
Winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize for Fiction, The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes
I’ve become accustomed to taking hold of a novel after each semester loses its hold on me. Last December this time, I was busy appreciating the subtle lyricism and ethico-political deliberations found in J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. After grading the last bunch of exams about a week ago, I took off a few days in which I started searching for a good story. Not that we don’t already live in stories, but sometimes you need to travel away from your fables and fantasies. Sometimes you just become too used to familiarizing and defamiliarizing yourself with the plots of your life. I picked up The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, sensing in it a good read with which to end 2011.
If I had to use a single word to highlight the underlying theme of The Sense of an Ending, it would be memory. The novel’s first-line introduces us to its protagonist’s relationship with memory: “I remember, in no particular order” (which is followed by a list of memories that forespeak to the content of the narration).
Remembrance is something I do. It is a mental act stroking the psychosomatic members of memory. Memory as such jostles against the threshold space between sense perception and cognition. Using various cognitive-cum-affective choreographies, remembrance cavorts in the brain membranes. Sometimes it moves fast as if eidetically imitating the cha cha or the break-lock-pop. At other times, remembrance follows a subtler pattern of movement like the waltz. But often remembrance is free-style: improvisational, instrumental, associational. This is the sort of remembrance we encounter in The Sense of an Ending. Those who have read the novel might agree with my use of dance metaphors if they remember the protagonist’s recollection of a dance scene after the passing of almost four decades.
Witnessing new scenes and sites re-presents the content of certain memories before us. At the sudden intrusion of these old acquaintances, friends, or foes, we’re sometimes surprised by ourselves. The re-arrangement of the affective field to which we stand witness does the trick. Put the right elements in place and almost any memory comes rushing forth. Sometimes we try to dig inside ourselves for hidden memories, thinking that we ought to bring out what went in. But it’s never that simple. It’s as if memory has a secret promise with non-sovereignty, unsettling the faith and trust we put in indexicality, knowledge, and mastery.
Through the narration of The Sense of an Ending, its protagonist Tony Webster teaches himself a set of lessons about the erratic itineraries of memory. We could say that a reflection is offered on how the chronological time of life gets itself undone through the durational time of memory. But realizing, by which I mean assuming in everyday behavior, ourselves as divided by chronology and duration does not place us outside either. They carry us on forward in time. Even in moments of realizing ourselves as split by chronology and duration, we dance free-style to the beats of being and time. Living implies constant narrative shifts, adjusting to the rhythms of our truths, lies, and indifferences.
“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” (The Sense of an Ending, 104).