Julian Barnes’s A Sense of an Ending
In a novel, “History,” is an idea. Its accuracy is unassailable. The events of the story may coincide with those of reality but even in the most historical of “historical fiction” the facts always serve the imagined narrative.
Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending is interested in the idea of history itself. The protagonist, Tony, remembers a high school discussion in which he defines history as the story of the victors. His professor replies that it is just as much the justification of the defeated. Tony’s friend Adrian, as always, steals the scene. “History,” he says, “Is the certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.” History as a pure retelling of reality does not exist. The story here is of Tony’s futility.
Tony reconnects with an old girlfriend named Veronica with the intention of recovering Adrian’s diary. She is cold with him despite his best efforts at rekindling the past. Adrian had killed himself in college while dating Veronica after she and Tony split. Tony expects her to open up, to give him answers about Adrian, to share some laughs and nostalgia. Tony sees no reality, but projects his desire to relive a former shame. He’s older, wiser, and he wants her to know. He remembers sending Adrian a hateful note after Adrian began dating Veronica but it’s only when Veronica gives Tony the note years later that he realizes the vitriol of his selfishness. Veronica leads Tony to her son, now an adult with an intellectual disability. He cannot see until he has looked at the man several times that Adrian was his father. He cannot make the connection between Adrian’s suicide and Veronica’s pregnancy until well after the fact.
Tony’s voice reveals the recognition of his youthful immaturity. He laughs at his teenage pedantry; winces at his sexual bumbling; cringes, then shrugs off his old fear of intimacy and then his reactionary behavior in sending the letter. But we see him as an adult, still self-centered, immature and isolated by his own ego. Still oblivious to reality. Nothing much has changed.
We blind ourselves from the past because every event is at least a little shameful. We always second-guess the past, wish we could do it all over again. This is the paradox of experience, it forces us to create our own fictitious version of things to avoid facing the fools we were and sometimes continue to be.