The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes


One of the most striking images used by Julian Barnes in this book about memory is the Severn Bore.  This phenomenon is a wave that occurs in the tidal basin of the Severn River when the river runs upstream because of a tide.  The largest bores occur in the spring when the water is at the highest levels.  Here's a link to a website about the Severn Bore.

Tony Webster, now in his 60s, tells the story of a group of his school friends, followed by a brief survey of his own life.  His review of their friendship and his life was occasioned by a bequest made by the mother of a girlfriend with whom he had a brief and stormy relationship.  Ultimately he receives a copy of a letter he sent to the ex-girlfriend and his friend with whom she had taken up.  He is shocked by his own cruelty and is forced to reconsider his view of himself and his relationship to loved ones.  This evidence of a forgotten self is as dramatic as a river running backwards.

Throughout the book are hints and references to a more accurate view of an event that in truth may be unknowable.  Here are a few passages I highlighted as I read the book.

Old Joe Hunt said when arguing with Adrian:  that mental states can be inferred from actions.  That's in history — Henry VIII and all that.  Whereas in the private life, I think the converse is true:  that you can infer past actions from current mental states.

And later:

…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.

I love this one:

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."

And this:

Veronica's account of her parents' deaths–yes, even her father's–had touched me more than I would have thought possible.  I felt a new sympathy for them–and her.  Then, not long afterwards, I began remembering forgotten things.  I don't know if there's a scientific explanation for this–to do with new affective states reopening blocked-off neural pathways.  All I can say is that it happened, and that it astonished me.

I could go on, but will resist.  It's hard to avoid being conscious of the implications for one's self and thinking uncomfortable thoughts.  Man Booker Prize winner for 2011.

Here it is near the end of August and I find I must add to this post, prompted by Annette's question about the ending of this book.  Before I read the book, I saw comments in John Self's post on the book in The Asylum that explained the mysterious end.  I'm not sure I should use the word "explain" for the discussion in those comments as I found the explanations far-fetched, but have none of my own.  I was impressed with those explanations, but ultimately I think we are meant to remain in the dark about what happened and that this state is not uncommon in the goings-on among humans.  I myself am often mystified by what people say and do.  

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