“How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? . . . Our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others but—mainly—to ourselves.”
Julian Barnes’s furtive and masterly book, The Sense of an Ending, fits within that broad, 21st century movement of someone trying to make sense of reality (well, at least it’s become massively popular in the 21st century, even if Plato was doing the same thing). The Man Booker Prize winner, it seems almost to have taken the protagonist from last year’s winner (The Finkler Question) and recast him—still single (although divorced), still aging in England, still confused as hell about himself and reality itself.
As Tony reflects on his life in The Sense of an Ending, he realizes time is not as static as we try to make it with atomic clocks and Swiss watches. It varies, rather like your pulse. If time cannot be trusted, how can we trust our memory of a time, the fragmented images and feelings from a year or forty ago (or, for some of us, last week)? As Tony remembers old images and feelings, he finds long-forgotten memories rise to the surface. He comes to the realization that the stories he has told about himself may not be as clear as he has made them.
Ultimately, Tony’s life forces us all to look again at our lives, to examine them with more honesty and less certainty than we have before, and to ask ourselves whether we are the product of what happened to us or the stories we tell about it. Perhaps doing so will give us more compassion—not only for others, but maybe even for ourselves.