- - Friday, October 28, 2011

By Julian Barnes
Alfred A. Knopf, $23,95, 176 pages

Early in Julian Barnes’ novel “The Sense of an Ending,” a teacher asks, “What is history?” London teenager Tony Webster answers, “History is the lies of the victors.” Tony’s brilliant friend, Adrian Finn, “a tall, shy boy,” answers the same question with “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”

Adrian’s answer is the leitmotif of this deliciously intriguing novel, as Tony, now a 60-year-old retiree, recalls the events of his life, only to discover that what he remembers and what actually happened are not one and the same.

The students were “book-hungry, sex-hungry, meritocratic, anarchistic”; they were “pretentious - what else is youth for?” After graduation, they went their separate ways, but Adrian remained the philosophical touchstone for Tony.

Tony fell in love with the elusive and enigmatic Veronica Ford. He explains that “this is what used to happen: you met a girl, you were attracted to her, you tried to ingratiate yourself, you would invite her to a couple of social events - for instance, the pub - then ask her out on her own, then again, and after a good-night kiss of variable heat, you were somehow officially ‘going out’ with her. Only when you were semi-publicly committed did you discover what her sexual policy might be. And sometimes this meant her body would be as tightly guarded as a fisheries exclusion zone.”

Veronica and Tony break up, but “the first experience of love, even if it doesn’t work out - perhaps especially when it doesn’t work out - promises that here is the thing that validates, that vindicates life.”

After the break with Tony, Veronica and Adrian become a couple, while Tony goes to America, where he “waited on tables, painted fences, did gardening and delivered cars across several states. In those years before mobile phones, email and Skype, travelers depended on the rudimentary communications system known as the postcard. Other methods - the long-distance phone call, the telegram - were marked ‘For Emergency Use Only.’ “

The emergency that recalled him to England was Adrian’s suicide, which Tony and his friends viewed as a deliberate philosophical act, as Adrian believed that “life is a gift bestowed without anyone asking for it” and if a person decides to renounce this gift, “it is a moral and human duty to act on the consequences of that decision.”

Tony chose to forgo the dreams and aspirations of his youth: He married but later divorced amicably and remained good friends with his ex-wife, Margaret. “Life went by,” and he came to understand that history is “more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated.”

“Or perhaps it’s the same paradox again: the history that happens underneath our noses ought to be the clearest, and yet it’s the most deliquescent. We live in time, it bounds us and defines us, and time is supposed to measure history, isn’t it? But if we can’t understand time, can’t grasp its mysteries of pace and progress, what chance do we have with history - even our own small, personal, largely undocumented piece of it?”

When Tony unexpectedly receives a bequest of 500 pounds, a letter and a diary from Veronica’s mother, a woman he remembered from a single meeting one rather miserable weekend when Veronica took him home to meet her family, as “a carefree, rather dashing woman who broke an egg, cooked me another, and told me not to take any [guff] from her daughter,” he is nonplussed.

Tony delves into half-forgotten memories of his relationships with Veronica and Adrian as he tries to solve the mystery behind the bequest. “It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age: when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others.”

Veronica re-enters his life. She meets with Tony but refuses to give him the diary. What he discovers indirectly through her and the letter shatters the calm of his life and the substance of his memories. The unraveling of the mystery of Mrs. Ford’s bequest is suspenseful, but suspense is touched with whimsy, humorous asides and understanding. In the end, Tony concludes, “[H]istory isn’t the lies of the victors … It’s more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated.”

“The Sense of an Ending,” recent winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize, is a novel for grown-ups. On the surface, it’s a simple story, but one with complex and subtle undertones. Laced with Mr. Barnes’ trademark wit and graceful writing, Tony’s recollections bring to mind issues of memory and aging as well as the humor in situations that the young consider of passionate importance. “[W]hat you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.” How true.

• Corinna Lothar is a writer and critic in Washington.

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