On Thursday I stopped into the library to return some books and came out with a veritable treasure trove of books, which, combined with some review books that arrived earlier in the week, gave me plenty of reasons to curl up on the sofa with a pot of tea by my side.
Because I was craving something compact, I chose The Sense of an Ending to read yesterday afternoon. What a marvelous combination of intensity and understatement Julian Barnes achieves in this slim little novel. It’s really a novel about an ordinary man, Tony Webster, who is at that stage of life where he seems surrounded by endings. He’s retired, divorced, his only child has grown up and away from him, and a day’s activity might consist of “restringing a blind and patching a pair of trousers.” He is a self-proclaimed man who “finds comfort in his own doggedness.” When a rather mysterious bequest comes his way, Tony finds himself in contact with an old flame from his youth. Through their rather enigmatic encounters, he comes to the realization that his past experience was really nothing like he remembered it, and that his actions have had far graver consequences on people’s lives than he ever imagined.
Barnes himself has said that he “wanted to write a book about what time does to memory, how it changes it, and what memory does to time”; about “discovering at a certain point in your life that things you’ve always believed were wrong.” It’s also a book about discovering and accepting who you are and the way you’ve chosen to live. “If Tony had seen more clearly, acted more decisively, held to truer moral values, settled less easily for a passive peaceableness which he first called happiness and later contentment. If Tony hadn’t been fearful, hadn’t counted on the approval of others for his own self-approval…and so on, through a succession of hypotheticals leading to the final one: so, for instance, if Tony hadn’t been Tony.”
Most of us, at least when we reach a certain age, are wont to examine our lives, are prone to counting what-if’s and shoulda-coulda-woulda’s. In trying to make peace with those memories, you have to determine how many times acting counter to your original course would have meant acting counter to who you are as a person.
And you have to make some kind of peace with the answer.
One reviewer calls The Sense of An Ending, an “average book about an average English guy.” Well, aren’t most of us just “average” people, trying to do the best we can with life as it happens? Tony is given the opportunity, if you will, to reexamine his past in light of new, rather alarming information, an opportunity most of us never have.
But in the end, we each can only do the best we can with what we have.