When I was in college, I was lucky enough to be part of a large, jolly group of friends who often did the silly things college students do just because they can. An active participant in our mostly harmless antics was my friend Lesa. Lesa joined the Peace Corps after graduation, and a few months into her assignment in Lesotho, she was murdered.
A memorial service was arranged at the dorm most of us had lived in for the first couple of years of college. Friends got up and spoke about Lesa, shared memories, many funny, because Lesa had a great sense of humor and enjoyed a good joke or prank. One friend stood up and talked about an evening a bunch of us drove over to Lake Calhoun for an evening's stroll. I was part of that evening, and it brought back wonderful, fun memories, a bunch of silly college students enjoying a beautiful spring evening. I remembered that Steve Winwood's "Higher Love" was on the radio on the drive over.
And then I remembered that although Lesa had come along in the car, she didn't join us on the walk, instead visiting a boyfriend who lived nearby. While the speaker was talking fondly of Lesa and how much she'd enjoyed that walk, and how it was just the kind of thing Lesa loved doing, I was sitting thinking about the fact that Lesa really wasn't on that walk. Of course I didn't say anything--I certainly didn't want to spoil someone else's wonderful memory. And yes, it was exactly the sort of thing she loved to do, so you could say she was there in spirit, if not reality. But it really drove home to me how memory is fallible, or perhaps the better term is malleable.
Which brings me to Julian Barnes' wonderful novella, The Sense of an Ending. This short book is told from the perspective of Tony Webster, who reflects (mostly fondly) on his own crew of friends from school. He's looking back over a lifetime; he's divorced, retired, lives a quiet life that he pokes a little fun at. He seems to have come to terms with the things that were hard in his life, and is just riding out what's left with a willingness to accept contentment.
Yet, for all that he's a most genial narrator, there's a sense of unease about the past:
"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."
The ongoing narrative returns to that theme again and again, creating a tension, even a sense of dread, in the reader (at least, this reader).
"Though why should we expect age to mellow us? If it isn't life's business to reward merit, why should it be life's business to give us warm, comfortable feelings towards its end? What possible evolutionary purpose could nostalgia serve?"
He even calls into question his own narrative:
"How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but--mainly--to ourselves."
There are painful things in Tony's past. A girlfriend who manipulates him, breaks up with him, then starts dating his friend. The suicide of a friend. But over time, these pains have eased. Haven't they? And he understands their actions. Doesn't he?
Maybe; maybe not. When he finds out that he is the unexpected recipient of a small inheritance from his former girlfriend's mother, he makes the effort to find out why, and his memories of his past suddenly are clarified in ways he never would have imagined.
This is a short book by a narrator who, in some ways, is unreliable, but only in that he knows memory is faulty and continually reminds you of that. He's a congenial narrator, good company, much given to conversational sidebars that are interesting. He'd be wonderful company at lunch. Yet as likable as he is, Barnes skillfully uses each and every word coming out of Webster's mouth to contradict the sense of calm that Webster professes to. It's a wonder of precise writing, a character fully drawn, a book in which not a whole lot happens but it feels like a lifetime of events happens. To Barnes' credit, he doesn't drag it out to make a more traditionally sized novel. At 163 pages, it's exactly as long as it needs to be.
It's the rare book that I checked out from the library but now plan to buy and reread when it comes out in paperback. I suspect it will be a rewarding second reading.
I chose the 2/7 publication date for this post because it would have been Lesa's 57th birthday. Gone, but not forgotten. My memories of her are all wonderful, and I'm sticking with that.