Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Accumulated Memories

"History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation."

This quote, which the character, Adrian, credits to French historian, Patrick Lagrange, is the centerpiece of Julian Barnes' book, The Sense of an Ending.  The story starts with four friends in high school in England, all with the sense that one of them, Adrian, is inherently superior to them in some unknowable way.  Another of them, Tony, tells the story through his eyes, and through the imperfections of his memory.  Tony's tale is that of the friends drifting apart, of Adrian's failure, and of long past betrayals.

Forty years later, the death of a minor character and the unexpected bequest that she leaves to Tony, cause him to question what he thought he knew about Adrian.  As an estate planning attorney, I love the story of a strange and unanticipated gift in a will.  Tony soon learns, however, that an old girlfriend, Veronica, is holding on to the item that he is supposed to receive, with no intention of turning it over to him.

Veronica shows Tony a side of himself that he had forgotten existed, by sending him a copy of a letter that he had sent to Adrian.  The letter is full of venom and curses, which Tony had forgotten writing.  Tony's words from his youth came true in ways that he never thought possible.  When I was in high school, a boy who I knew told a girl who I knew to go to hell one Friday.   They weren't arguing, it was just something that he said.  The next day, the girl was killed in a plane crash, and the boy was devastated, feeling that he had condemned her.  This is exactly Tony's position, only he didn't realize that his curse might have had any effect until decades had past.

The reviews of The Sense of an Ending are all written in a sort of code, so as not to give the ending away.  In fact, I didn't see the ending coming, and was furious with Barnes, with only a few pages to go, for his treatment of different learners and their families.  I'll discuss this further on my Spoilers Page, for anyone who is interested.  My opinion changed when Tony realized that it wasn't his curse, but the advice that he gave to Adrian that lead to the final results.  I think that it will take some time for me to really think this book through.  I also admit that if I hadn't allowed myself to be sidetracked by my perception of prejudice, I may have found the book more powerful.

Adrian was concerned with what he called "accumulations", which he explains in horse racing terms as bets that roll on the profits from one horse's win to increase the bets on a later horse. The book ends with the statement "There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest."   It will all make perfect sense, when you get to the end.  What Tony forgot, with all of his focus on Adrian's clever words, is that history repeats itself.

The Sense of an Ending won the 2011 Man Booker Prize, and was a NYT Notable Book.  At just 163 pages, it was a fast read, and very heavy, without being difficult.

That's one more down for the Support Your Library Challenge!

Next up:  New American Haggadah by Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander

Almost Done Listening to:  The Russian Debutant's Handbook by Gary Shteyngart

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