Where the Imperfections of Memory Meet the Inadequacies of Documentation

Julian Barnes

The story of Adrian’s suicide begins with a girl.  In college, Tony dates a sharp and judgmental girl named Veronica, who will not allow Tony to “go all the way.”  The relationship includes a weekend trip home to Veronica’s condescending family, where Tony hears, and then sloughs off, a mysterious comment from Veronica’s mother about her daughter.  Soon enough, Veronica begins dating Adrian.  The ever-dutiful Adrian writes Tony asking for “permission” to date Veronica.  Tony tries to be, well, flippant, but he writes a nasty, vengeful letter accusing Veronica of being “damaged” and urging Adrian (flippantly) to investigate the comment Veronica’s mother made to Tony.  Years pass, Tony graduates from college, he spends six months in America, and he returns home to learn of Adrian’s suicide.

More years pass.  Well into his sixties and having raised a family of his own, Tony receives a small bequest and personal note from Veronica’s recently-deceased mother.  But his only interaction with her was over the aforementioned weekend, the only notable portion of which was warning Tony not to “let Veronica get away with too much.”  How had that interlude earned him a gift in her will?

The Sense of an Ending is not a detective story, per se, but it is largely taken up with Tony’s search for answers.  The reader accompanies Tony on his search, and I would hardly be using all this time and space if the search were not bracing.

Barnes gives Tony a kind of double consciousness as he undertakes his search for answers about the bequest left by Veronica’s mother.  Single: Tony in the Present experiences life as it happens: he dates Veronica, learns that his friend killed himself, marries Margaret, divorces Margaret, occasionally has lunch with Margaret, yearns for more attention from his daughter . . . and receives a strange note from the mother of his college girlfriend explaining why she left him five hundred pounds.  Double: Tony in the Future has learned the answer to the riddle of the bequest and note.  Except that Tony in the Future is actually Tony in the Past, living in the future constantly reliving the past (“My memory has increasingly become a mechanism which reiterates apparently truthful data with little variation.”).

Herein lies the conceptual rub that makes The Sense of an Ending such a probing and unsettling inquiry into your life and mine.  Tony in the Present forgets actual occurrences involving him, Veronica, Adrian, and Veronica’s mother; or he de-emphasizes them; or suppresses them—which one?  Tony in the Future, surveying the sordid wreckage of those now-discovered occurrences, questions his memory of them even in their excavation, explaining that “if I can’t be sure of the actual events any more, I can at least be true to the impressions those facts left.”  He recalls history class discussion of the eternal question of whether World War I was the fault of Archduke Ferdinand’s assassin or a confluence of unrelated factors (militarism, alliances, and so on).  It is Adrian who mediates these concepts: “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”  Think on that for a bit.

Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand

The Ending Stays the Same

Tony in the Future ponders the question arising from these mediated concepts—how the malleability of memory constrains us from assigning responsibility for actual occurrences—while Tony in the Present as searches for the bequest’s explanation.  Along the way, he gathers more clues, encounters more ghosts—a note from Veronica’s mother assuring Tony that “the last months of Adrian’s life were happy,” an email response from Veronica caustically suggesting the bequest represents “blood money,” and so on.  With every passing apparition, each of which raise more questions than they answer, Tony in the Present probes further.

The Sense of an Ending asks of readers our own double consciousness.  As we labor alongside Tony to solve the mystery of the bequest, we travel along the contours of his mind, and we simultaneously watch from a distance as Tony formulates story after new story about the bequest and all it rehashes about his college years.  In time The Sense of an Ending becomes a compendium of Tony’s stories.  The novella is in one sense a fiction compiled of Tony’s fictions.  It has the look of a fiction composed entirely of mental fictions.  There are harmless fictions, such as Tony’s daydream about where life has taken Veronica’s conceited older brother.   And there are the more grave fictions, Tony’s fictions about Veronica’s mum’s note, Adrian’s suicide, and the increasingly unavoidable consonance between them.

The plots of Tony’s fictions change, as they must to accommodate every new clue about the bequest.  But the ending always stays the same.  The stories drive toward the same ending Tony imagines, because Tony in the Present, in the middle of the story, unconsciously has an ending in mind, a certain kind of ending, one unaffected by the questions of time, memory, and responsibility with which Tony in the Future grapples.

Under the Shadow of The End

The title of The Sense of an Ending is not original, and that Barnes gave that title to his novella is not a coincidence.  It is identical to the one the inimitable Frank Kermode chose for his exhilarating little book adapted from his 1965 Flexner Lectures at Bryn Mawr College.  Registering at less than two hundred pages, Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending manages to be a sprawling study of the manner in which literary fictions take their form, but its relative concision owes to its locus in a single idea: the notion that—trading pith for oversimplification here—every fiction is to some degree written backwards.

Kermode is about the business of revealing how fictions—stories, both true in reality and true only as inventions of the mind—take their shape.  As an introductory study, Kermode chooses apocalyptic fictions.  Every apocalyptic fiction—be it from the Book of Revelation, Joachim of Fiore, or the sermons of Thomas Muntzer—begins with a predetermined ending—that is, the imminent occurrence of The End.  The elements of the plot are shaped to lead to that ending; as such, the plot elements derive their significance, their weight, from that ending.  Like the episodes of The Aeneid leading to a resolution known to the reader, the plot elements of apocalyptic fictions “exist under the shadow of the end.”

One thing is needful for a convincing apocalyptic fiction: in order to persuade the reader of the imminence of The End, the plot of an apocalyptic fiction must plausibly correspond to reality; it must be capable of what Kermode calls “consolation”; it must be capable of gaining our empathy and our faith.  And so the prophet delicately shapes the plot elements to provide for consonance between the predicted end and present reality.  As Kermode puts it, the prophet makes “imaginative investments in coherent patterns which, by their provision of an end, make possible a satisfying consonance with the origins and the middle.”

The challenge for the apocalyptic genre occurs when the predicted end does not come to pass.  What happens when Harold Camping predicts the rapture will occur on May 21, 2011, but that date passes without Christian drivers disappearing from their cars?  While the specified ending has been disconfirmed, the entire story need not suffer discredit.  Rather, Camping cracks open his Bible, turns on his calculator, and finds out that he has made an error: he “reinterprets” the biblical evidence, finds that May 21 was actually the “spiritual” judgment day, and calculates October 21 as the new date.  The End remains imminent.  The abstraction and obscurity of a new plot element—a “spiritual” judgment day—preserves the fiction’s credibility for those who have ears to hear.

The Consolation of Beginning, Middle, and End

All this reconfiguration is in the service of consolation.  A continuing emphasis of Kermode’s book is the unique consolatory power to humans of a fiction structured with beginning, middle, and end.  We can hardly exist without a story following that arc.  And we must write backward because the ending of the fiction is the portion in which the need for resolution is most urgent.  That is, we seek consolation from the uncertainty of The End, toward which time trudges unceasingly from the very moment of our birth

It is not difficult to observe this consolation at work in apocalyptic fictions in our own day.  Among Christians it is no surprise that Left Behind emerged from American Evangelicalism and sold so well among American Evangelicals.  From years of hearing it, I can say that the practical theology of American Evangelicalism—that is, the content of the preaching—is devoid of what is called “inaugurated eschatology,” whereby Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection actually inaugurated The End, rather than signaled it like a firework or a message in the sky.  But in American Evangelicalism, the resurrection is typically not treated as the very End brought into the middle; rather, the resurrection is treated as a signal of the end, a portend only, as the moment Christ flew into the sky and promised to fly back.  The period between the resurrection and the end is purely interim, a dead space filled only with aspiration.

But creation, sin, the crucifixion, and the resurrection are alluring elements of an ongoing, open plot; they cry out for an end, as we cry out for consolation.  Mankind is not apt to leave its plots open.  So American Evangelicalism, like its older brother American Fundamentalism, places inordinate emphasis on the “end times,” on the fact that Christ is “coming back” and that we need to “watch out” for him.  Kermode is no Christian—he professed only “a faint absenteeist affection” for the Church of England—but he knew his theology, remarking that Christ changed the past, “rewrote it, and in a new way fulfilled it.”  In the absence of a theology that fulfills the past with anything more than flat doctrinal propositions, Left Behind is representative of a theological subculture that embraces simplistically literal interpretations of purposely ambiguous biblical texts which, in the simplicity of those interpretations, aim to correspond with present reality, and so console.  (Though, it was hardly consolation for me as a ten-year-old to sit in my bed in the dark at Baptist summer camp and listen to my youth minister, Tim, cite events in present reality that corresponded with Matthew 24’s seven signs of the end of the age.  There was so much of life I still wanted to experience.)

But an apocalyptic religious fiction is not the only kind of fiction that consoles.  Every fiction seeks to console.  Every fiction seeks to make our helpless condition more palatable.  Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending demonstrates how every disconfirmation of our cultural conception of the ultimate end—only a minority of us in the West, for example, still believe that Christ is lord of that End, whatever it looks like—demands a reconfiguration of the plot’s correspondence to the present reality.

Many or most of us in the West will end up on our death beds like Matthew Arnold, rejecting the consolation of the Christian minister because “that undiscovered mystery / . . . one who feels death’s winnowing wings / Must need read clearer, sure, than he.”  Arnold chose to crawl to his bedroom window and catch one last sight of “the wide aerial landscape spread— / The world which ere I was born / The world which lasts when I am dead.”  But even Arnold needed consolation; he needed the certainty of significance of his contribution to this world which “lived itself, and made us live.”  And so he yearns “to feel the universe my home,” to sense his unity with “the pure eternal course of life.”  Arnold demonstrates the manner in which a fiction that might be described, for lack of a better term, as “secular” is as much born of a need for consolation as is any fiction that might be described, imprecisely as well, as “religious.”

Hence, as the West believes less in the universe as ordered toward a tidy resolution, the plots of our fictions are less ordered toward a tidy resolution.  Lord Jim is an example of a fiction from an ironic era that arrives at a resolution, but only through a fog of uncertainty, and with the only order being a yearned-for imposition of a small measure of order upon the world’s disorder.  In this current era, we have the social phenomenon I spoke about earlier, flippancy, which seeks to impose a kind of Nietzschean optimism on an End-less fiction.  Even those of use still convinced of an ordered universe are less likely to find consolation in the simple good-versus-evil tales of the past.  Only when the complexity of the fiction matches the complexity of the moment can a fiction console.  A fiction can only console when it shows, per Kermode, “marked respect for things as they are.”