Published by Knopf on October 2011
Source: my shelves
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Tony Webster is a typically pretentious and philosophical teenager attending a London prep school, when his history teacher asks of the class, “What is history?” Tony knowingly answers, “History is the lies of the victors,” to which the history teacher responds, “Well, as long as you remember that it is also the self-delusions of the defeated.” When asked the same question, Tony’s friend Adrian quotes Patrick Lagrange and answers, “‘History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.‘” Adrian’s response is the main theme of The Sense of an Ending, and it will come back to haunt Tony when he least expects it.
From the author’s website:
Tony Webster and his clique first met Adrian Finn at school. Sex-hungry and book-hungry, they navigated the girl drought of gawky adolescence together, trading in affectations, in-jokes, rumour and wit. Maybe Adrian was a little more serious than the others, certainly more intelligent, but they swore to stay friends forever. Until Adrian’s life took a turn into tragedy, and all of them, especially Tony, moved on and did their best to forget.
Now Tony is in middle age. He’s had a career and a marriage, a calm divorce. He gets along nicely, he thinks, with his one child, a daughter, and even with his ex-wife. He’s certainly never tried to hurt anybody. Memory, though, is imperfect. It can always throw up surprises, as a lawyer’s letter is about to prove. The unexpected bequest conveyed by that letter leads Tony on a dogged search through a past suddenly turned murky. And how do you carry on, contentedly, when events conspire to upset all your vaunted truths?
This is such a good book. How is it that I had gone so long without knowing about Julian Barnes or reading any of his work? I don’t know how to even begin to do The Sense of an Ending justice here, and all I really want to say is READ IT NOW… please? I was hooked from the moment Tony and his pretentious prep school friends started quoting philosophy and having amazing discussions in their prep school classes. I stayed hooked when the story became a mystery of sorts, and I was stumped until the very end. Oh, and the ending? WHOA. I didn’t see THAT coming.
The characters are wonderful–lovably, maddeningly, complexly wonderful. I fell in love with Adrian’s intelligence and wisdom, then had my heart broken more than once; Tony frustrated me with his naïveté, but swept me off my feet with his meditations about time, memory, and character; Veronica ticked me off beyond belief at first, then demanded sympathy which I willingly gave her in the end. All of the major characters in this book are so very realistic and well-written.
This is the most quotable book I’ve read in a long time, so I’m going to share some of my favorites with you and let the writing speak for itself…
Adrian on ascribing responsibility in historical situations like war:
But of course, my desire to ascribe responsibility might be more a reflection of my own cast of mind than a fair analysis of what happened. That’s one of the central problems of history, isn’t it, sir? The question of subjective versus objective interpretation, the fact that we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us.
Tony reflecting on Adrian’s state of mind:
He had a better mind and a more rigorous temperament that me; he thought logically, and then acted on the conclusion of logical thought. Whereas most of us, I suspect, do the opposite: we make an instinctive decision, then build up an infrastructure of reasoning to justify it. And call the result common sense.
Tony on history:
History isn’t the lies of the victors, as I once glibly assured Old Joe Hunt; I know that now. It’s more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated.
Tony on time, past decisions, and his avoidance of adventure:
But time… how time first grounds us and then confounds us. We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imagined we were being responsible but were only being cowardly. What we called realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things rather than facing them. Time… give us enough time and our best-supported decisions will seem wobbly, our certainties whimsical.
Tony on character:
Does character develop over time? In novels, of course it does: otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a story. But in life? I sometimes wonder. Our attitudes and opinions change, we develop new habits and eccentricities, but that’s something different, more like decoration. Perhaps character resembles intelligence, except that character peaks a little later: between twenty and thirty, say. And after that, we’re just stuck with what we’ve got. We’re on our own. If so, that would explain a lot of lives, wouldn’t it? And also–if this isn’t too grand a word–our tragedy.
I could go on, but I’d rather you read the book and experience all of it in context.
I don’t know about the rest of Julian Barnes’ books, but this one is terrifically well-written and engrossing. I loved it and I highly recommend it.