The Sense of an Ending, winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize, might be — paradoxically — Julian Barnes' slenderest and most emotionally forthcoming book to date. In his previous novels and short stories, emotion has been stifled, concealed or tucked behind technical devices (as in Flaubert's Parrot). In this latest book, feeling is laid bare and imbued into Barnes' longstanding intellectual preoccupations with authorship, authenticity and mortality.
Stella Rimington, chair of the Booker judging committee, praised The Sense of an Ending for its ingenious plotting and its revelations into character: "One of the things that the book does is talk about the human kind," she says. "None of us really knows who we are. We present ourselves in all sorts of ways, but maybe the ways we present ourselves are not how we really are."
When protagonist Tony Webster, a retiree in his 60s, learns that the mother of his college girlfriend, Veronica, has left him a bequest, it sets off a chain reaction. Tony tracks down Veronica and other long-forgotten classmates — including the inscrutable Adrian. To his horror, he discovers that he had cruelly wounded his friends years ago, and he must now radically revise who he thinks he is.
It's a book about "memory and time," Barnes tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer. "What time does to memory and what memory does to time, how they interact. And it's also about what happens to someone in later years when they discover that some of the certainties they've always relied on, certainties in their mind and memory ... are beginning to be undermined."
Memory, as Barnes understands it — and as Tony is forced to realize — is far more edited than we'd like to believe.
"I have a brother who's a philosopher," Barnes says. "He maintains that almost all memories are false, all fallible, and that memory is the act of imagination, rather than the act of a lucid remembering machine somewhere up in our brains. I have a more sort of old-fashioned, pragmatic view of memory. But I certainly increasingly think that it's not only faulty but sometimes over-reliant on the imagination."
Barnes has been exploring questions of self-delusion and personal narratives throughout his career, most intensively in his previous book, Nothing to Be Frightened Of, in which he investigated how writers and philosophers have reckoned with mortality.
If aging makes such musings — on legacy, death, the unknown — (what Barnes calls "pit-gazing" in Nothing to Be Frightened Of), it also makes it more difficult as we begin to lose our peers, the witnesses who could corroborate our memories.
It's a phenomenon Barnes noticed in his own life.
"I've got no close friends left from when I was a schoolboy up to the time I was 18," he says. "And from those I met at university ... I think I've got one who I occasionally run into. So it's just partly changing circumstances as well as death. But the ability to check things diminishes ... And so that's why what happens to Tony Webster in my novel when some of his certainties are violently overturned, it's not a pleasant experience and it can lead to some powerful and unpleasant emotions."
If we can't even reconcile our individual pasts, what does it say about our ability to settle on national narratives? As Tony ruminates in the book,
I still read a lot of history, and of course, I've followed all the official history that's happened in my own lifetime — the fall of Communism, Mrs. Thatcher, 9/11, global warming — with a normal mixture of fear, anxiety and cautious optimism. But I've never felt the same about it. I've never quite trusted it as I do events in Greece or Rome or the British Empire or the Russian Revolution. Perhaps I just feel safer with the history that's been more or less agreed upon. Or perhaps it's that same paradox again. The history that happens underneath our noses ought to be the clearest. And yet, it's the most deliquescent.
Much has been made of the relative slenderness of Barnes' book – it clocks in at under 200 pages — but like a particularly pleasing or complicated memory, it rewards revisiting — not least because there's a twist. Barnes notes that readers tell him that they frequently reread the book right after completing it to see where he's sprinkled hints about the final reveal.
And in an instance of art brutally mirroring life, the brevity of the book isn't incidental; it's central to the pleasure of reading. Barnes says concision was imperative, "this is a book about what we can't know." And like life, by the time we know the whole story — alas — it's too late.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.
Writer Julian Barnes won Man Booker Prize for literature for his new book. The book is called "The Sense of an Ending," and it's an engaging account from a retired Brit named Tony Webster of events in his much younger days and his encounter in his present life with some of the same people.
Webster narrates, beginning on the first page, when he says to the reader, I remember, in no particular order, and then provides a little list of memories on which he elaborates throughout the book.
Julian Barnes joins us from our London bureau.
Thank you for coming in to talk with us.
JULIAN BARNES: My pleasure.
WERTHEIMER: So, have you written a book about memory?
BARNES: Yes. It's about memory and time and what time does to memory and what memory does to time. How they interact. And it's also about what happens so someone in later years when they discover that some of the certainties they've always relied on are beginning to be undermined.
WERTHEIMER: So the notion that one might edit memory somehow or not exactly forget but not remember properly.
BARNES: Not remember properly. And also, perhaps, even from the beginning start to use the imagination. I have a brother who's a philosopher. And I remember a discussion I had with him about five years ago, where he maintains that almost all memories are false or fallible. And memory is an act of the imagination, rather than the act of a lucid remembering machine somewhere in our brains.
I have a more sort of old-fashioned, pragmatic view of memory. But I certainly increasingly think that it's not only faulty, but sometimes over-reliant on the imagination.
WERTHEIMER: Did that start you on this book, the conversation with your brother?
BARNES: No. That actually took place during the writing of a book called, "Nothing to be Frightened Of," which I published about five years ago, in which had my brother in it.
But I think overall in the last few years, I've been thinking about questions like is our life our life or is it merely the story we've told ourselves about our life? To what extent do we clearly remember recorded things? And to what extent is that self-delusion? And also, as we get older and the amount of corroboration to our own story of our life diminishes, the number of witnesses...
WERTHEIMER: As people die and whatnot.
BARNES: As people die, as people move away, as you make new friends. I mean, I've got no close friends left from when I was a schoolboy up to the time I was 18. And from those I met at university, I've probably - I think I've got one who I occasionally run into. So it's just partly changing circumstances, as well as death.
But the ability to check things diminishes. And part of you doesn't want that, because you prefer your own version of events. And so that's why what happens to Tony Webster in my novel when some of his certainties are violently overturned, it's not a pleasant experience and it can lead to some powerful and unpleasant emotions, starting with guilt and remorse.
WERTHEIMER: Now, one of the pivotal plot points revolves around a misremembered wound. Tony realizes that he was managed to forget or to alter an event where he'd actually behaved quite cruelly to his friends. Did you ever have such an experience?
BARNES: No, I've never had the experience of some sort of document coming back to haunt me.
WERTHEIMER: At least that you remember.
BARNES: Well, it may still happen, of course, you know. Things that you write as fiction sometimes turn out to be true. And, indeed, it would be ironic, to say the least, if I suddenly had to submit to the same sort of moral examination that Tony Webster does in this book.
So, no, I think there's not very much in this book that has happened to me, though occasionally I certainly would agree with some of the things that Tony says about time and memory and self-delusion.
WERTHEIMER: He makes a lot of comments throughout the book about time and memory, as you say. I wondered if you would read a bit from the book for us. I've picked a passage which is on - in the American edition - page 66, where Tony Webster talks about history. He says he's read a lot of history and he's thought about its inadequacy. So if you could begin at the top of the page there.
(Reading) I still read a lot of history, and of course, I've followed all the official history that's happened in my own lifetime - the fall of Communism, Mrs. Thatcher, 9/11, global warming - with a normal mixture of fear, anxiety and cautious optimism. But I've never felt the same about it. I've never quite trusted it as I do events in Greece and Rome or the British Empire or the Russian Revolution. Perhaps I just feel safer with the history that's been more or less agreed upon. Or perhaps it's that same paradox again - the history that happens underneath our noses ought to be the clearest and yet it's the most deliquescent.
WERTHEIMER: That's a good word.
BARNES: Thank you. It's in all good dictionaries. And I must have picked it up from another writer.
WERTHEIMER: It means melting or...
WERTHEIMER: ...melting away.
BARNES: Yes, collapsing into a pool.
WERTHEIMER: You know, the voice of your narrator is, especially in the beginning of the book, very, very attractive. And I was totally drawn in before I began to realize that perhaps Tony Webster might not be the most reliable person to tell his own story.
BARNES: That's right. Or the nicest person, the person who drew you in.
BARNES: But then this is cunning fictional technique by a novelist, you see. We draw you in. We get you to like this character and then all of the sudden you read the letters he wrote, which he's forgotten many years ago, and you think that's a bit of a slap across the face. No, he's not at all, no. There's more to him. And what there is that's more is not necessarily nice.
WERTHEIMER: It's such a brief book. We don't want to talk too much about it because then there'll be the whole book but...
BARNES: I think the word is concise rather than brief.
WERTHEIMER: I beg your pardon - concise.
BARNES: Yeah, packed with pleasure and wisdom.
WERTHEIMER: Oh, of course. Several of us around the office, I have to say, read it and was somewhat startled by the ending and then, I don't know, just immediately went back to the beginning and started over.
BARNES: Well, that's good. That's the nicest thing that I sometimes hear about this book. No, as I say, it's actually - I'm very gratified that you said that you went back to the beginning and started again because a number of people have done that. You weren't expected to have worked it out. But if you go back and look at the trail, you're meant to think, oh yes, of course. Now I see that and now I see that, and we get hints here and hints there and it sort of begins to make sense. I mean, it is partly a book in any case - and this is one of the reasons why it's so concise - it's a book about what we can't know. It's one of those books which some of the things are discovered in the course of it. But what is also discovered are things that it's now too late for us to actually know. So, when you go back and you follow the story through again, you get some but not all of the sort of moments which are meant to tip you off.
WERTHEIMER: Julian Barnes joined us from our London bureau. His new book is called "The Sense of an Ending." Mr. Barnes, thank you very much.
BARNES: My pleasure.
WERTHEIMER: To read an excerpt from Julian Barnes's new book, you can go to our website, NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.