Julian Barnes gets it so right in “The Sense of an Ending.” The novel(la) asks and attempts an answer at questions of how we remember our own histories, what makes for an exceptional life, and how we can reconcile the story we tell ourselves about who we are now with the “evidence” of our past actions and beliefs.
Our protagonist spends the first half of the novel narrating a pivotal experience from his adolescence/young adulthood – narrating it with a self-conscious awareness that his narration can only ever be partial and biased (but not an overly obsessive or intrusive self-consciousness, rather the gentle thematic reminders that history and memory might claim to rely on evidence and testimony, but in the end are only ever versions based on ever-shifting “facts”). The second half of the novel narrates how our protagonist must revisit and revise his version of his history, his memories, after new information – new “facts” – come to his attention. This attempt a revision, or attempt at reconciling long held memories with “realities” of the past, or contrasting memories, all result in the “sense” of an ending – the illusion of a conclusion, the ethereal trace of something like resolution, when in fact all we know at the end of the book is how incomplete, how false the certainty of a memory, how inadequate our capacities for recollection.
And this is my only quibble with the book – otherwise I really did find it to be exceptional – is that the ending that we’re given to the narrative reads as too dramatic, *too* showy, and its unnecessary. The brilliance of the book until that point is the banality of the events, the quotidian dramas that make the protagonist so brilliantly human and allowed this reader to so clearly empathize. Which is not to say that I’d do away with the climatic unpacking of the tangled threads of memory and actual experience, but rather I’d have appreciated a slightly less punchy actual experience – in other words, the climatic drama did not need to be so dramatic. Should not have been, actually, as it took away from the subtlety of the thematic exploration of what we can and what we pretend to know about our past and about our selves.
And as an individual with what I like to call a “partial memory,” or an “episodic memory” — I do not have a memory that allows for either sequence or certainty. I forget conversations, experiences, interactions and remember only brief moments, emotional impressions and that which a photograph prompts — I found this book a refreshing reminder that I am not so different from those who have “normal” memories/memory faculties – in that while those people might imagine a sure-r narrative and may be able to more convincingly recall their stories to themselves, they are, in the end, all but stories. And so perhaps my fixation with the historical and the fictional, with that which exists in the space between fact and imagination, has most to do with this – with my understanding of my own mnemonic incompleteness and my fantasy that I am missing out on a plenitude others experience. Julian Barnes reminded me that what I (imagine I) miss out on might just be the experience of memory for all of us, and that the certainty we imagine is just a sense, just a trace, that we use to account for our lives in a way that allows ourselves a story about the kind of person we are (or wish we were) and a story we mix up as true.