“My younger self had come back to shock my older self with what that self had been, or was, or was sometimes capable of being. And only recently I’d been going on about how the witnesses to our lives decrease, and with them our essential corroboration. Now I had some all too unwelcome corroboration of what I was, or had been.”
Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending is replete with all the ingredients I’ve always loved in novels: intrigue, sexual secrets, and a complex matrix of desire kicked into gear by a missing piece of writing. No wonder that it recently won the Man Booker prize. This elegant, 150-page novella opens with the main character, Tony Webster’s glance backward at his high school days in 1960s England, a place where he and his admittedly pretentious clique of friends got high on Baudelaire and Dostoevsky and debated grand questions like the origins of war. “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation,” says Adrian Finn, the genius of the group. Thus, early on, the novel establishes its fascination with the limitations of history and memory and writing – themes that Tony obsesses over, particularly as he gets older.
But “history” in this novel means personal history. Personal history of the most intimate kind. When the boys grow up and go off to university, Tony gets a girlfriend, an elusive beauty named Veronica who strings him along for several months until he dumps her – only to discover that she’s hooked up with his old pal Adrian. Incensed, Tony has a vague recollection of penning a nasty letter. Shortly after, Adrian kills himself for reasons that aren’t at all clear. Through a strange turn of events, decades later, Tony comes in contact with Veronica when it turns out that her mother has in her possession the late Adrian’s diary – again, for reasons that aren’t at all clear – and she has left it in her will to Tony. It might contain the key to the secret of why Adrian couldn’t bear to go on living. Yet Veronica has stolen the diary, setting the stage for a bizarre series of emails whereby Tony attempts to wrest the diary from her. Instead, what she sends him is his old letter – replete with his callow, biting (yet hilarious and sardonic) words. He is brought face to face with the cruelty of his younger self and the disastrous consequences his writing unleashed.
While the ending delivers a perverse twist, the most interesting aspect for me is Tony’s unraveling upon confronting his own former words. It is as though he repressed all memory of his writing; the letter seems as alien as if another person penned it, yet his writing is unmistakable. Fear of confronting and despising but nevertheless being forced to take responsibility for a former piece of your own writing strikes me as a fear that is especially resonant with writers. It certainly is with me. Here we are in November, a few months before my first book is set to be released, and I find myself waking up in cold sweats, tormented not so much by the possibility that readers won’t like my book, but rather by the possibility that two, five, ten years down the road, I may not like the book. Like Tony, I might barely even recognize my writing … or who knows? Perhaps a disastrous train of events is about to be kicked into gear in my personal life, as a result of its publication.
But what’s written is written.
So as Barnes says in the final sentence of his novel, “There is great unrest,” yet what can a writer do except keep on writing?
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