Serious about being Serious: History and the Claims of Memory in Julian Barnes’ The Sense of An Ending

Oliver Paynel, King’s College London

This article finds, in Julian Barnes’ 2011 novel The Sense of an Ending, a significant attempt to engage with the postmodern crisis of historical understanding that Jameson alludes to when he writes, in an early account of the postmodern, that:

It is safest to grasp the concept of the postmodern as an attempt to think the present historically in an age that has forgotten how to think historically in the first place.1

Barnes’ renewed attempt to ‘think historically’ in the twenty-first century is animated and made productive, I will argue, through a renewed responsiveness to, and investment in, the claims and the potencies of historical memory. Barnes’ novel evinces an acute awareness of the ‘rootlessness’ that is understood to be common for those living in a postmodern culture, and a concurrent concern with the irony and cynicism typical of postmodern literary engagement with historical narrative. Equally aware of its own inescapable proximity to the postmodern age, the novel extends a set of postmodern techniques and concerns into a twenty-first century historiography whilst, at the same time, offering a rebuke, a rethinking, of these techniques. Barnes’ novel achieves a concerted exploration of the possibility of situating the personal history of a life, bound up as it is in memory, within objective, chronological time; an exploration that suggests the possibility, through a certain attention, a ‘tuning in’ to the workings of memory, of thinking beyond postmodern relationships to history and time.

The title of Barnes novel stages an interaction with Frank Kermode’s eponymous 1967 The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction. Kermode argued that a desire for ‘consonance’ is common to all narratives, both those that we might initially deem ‘historical’ or ‘fictional’,2 and this desire is central to Kermode’s understanding of apocalyptic narratives. In Kermode’s words:

Men in the middest make considerable imaginative investments in coherentpatterns which, by the provision of an end, make possible a satisfying consonance with the origins and with the middle.3

Opening with a description of a series of seemingly abstract visual images, memories from the life of his protagonist Tony Webster, Barnes’ novel immediately establishes a tension between the non-linearity of Tony’s initial vivid memories from his own history, ‘I remember, in no particular order’,4 and his need to ‘return briefly […] to where it all began’ (p. 2), to locate his memories within achronological temporal frame in order to afford them relevance. In holding up decontextualized memories as anchoring points for the reader to search for and to draw significance from in the narrative that proceeds, Barnes informs us, on his opening page, of our complicity as readers in this Kermodian desire for ‘consonance’, for unity, that risks distorting and perverting our understanding of history.

The first part of Barnes’ novel lends itself to a recollection of Tony and his friends’ adolescent classroom explorations of the philosophy of history. Each of the protagonists has a sense of the unreliability of historical narrative, with responses ranging from Tony’s conceited and clichéd ‘History is the lies of the victors’ (p. 16) to Colin’s rejection of any prospect of ‘sense-making’ in the practice of ‘History’, which he derides as being ‘only some primitive storytelling instinct, itself doubtless a hangover from religion, retrospectively imposing meaning on what might or might not have happened’ (p. 11). These conjectural critiques of the unreliability and subjectivity of historical narrative reveal the boys’ anxiety about how their own lives might figure within the unforgiving framework of ‘History’. Each boy’s ambitious desire for a noteworthy ‘Life’ is motivated by their sense of the banality of their parents’ lives, seen in the grand narrative of ‘History’ as ‘at best…onlookers and bystanders, part of a social backdrop against which real, true, important things could happen’ (p. 15). In contrast to these dry realities, ‘History’ exists as a depository for the boys’ desires to forge personal histories with a sense of centrality, significance and coherence; as Tony reflects in relation to his own wish for a literary existence, ‘the novel was about the character developed over time’ (p. 15).

A schism between personal and linear time develops in Barnes’ novel as Tony finds his group ‘waiting to be released into our lives’, in the hope that ‘our lives – and time itself – would speed up’ (p. 9). The hopeful notion that the manipulation of circumstance might accelerate the idealised process of ‘character develop[ment] over time’ (p. 15) is given expression in Tony’s guarded assertion that time might be ‘a personal, even secret, thing’ (p. 6), a feeling afforded the boys by wearing their watches with the face on the inside of the wrist. This idiosyncrasy becomes an expression of their urgent desires to create a relation between the personal experience of history and time, and its chronological passage. Such a tension between personal and objective time is also expressed for Kermode through the analogy of the ticking clock hand, where the meaningful ‘tick-tock’ of kairos, anymoment in time charged with significance, charged with a meaning derived from its relation to the end’, is opposed with the rectilinear passage of time before it is imbued with meaning, the ‘tick-tick’ of chronos.5

The boys’ desire for an unimpaired personal narrative of development makes no room for unwanted previous history. Indeed, only in the context of Tony’s retrospectivenarration, his looking back from adulthood, is it clear that in each boy’s case ‘some advantage had already been gained, some damage already inflicted’ (p. 9) before the group formed, and before their lives began. The idea of a self-contained, isolated personal history appealed again to Tony when faced with the reality of Adrian’s suicide – the justification of his death as ‘the conclusion of logical thought’ (p. 51) exonerating Tony from engaging with the possibility of his own complicit responsibility. Seen as an action that concludes a process of rational deliberation, Adrian’s suicide acquires ‘consonance’, becomes manageable and, as such, ‘he retreated from us rather quickly, slotted into time and history’ (p. 54). His death, we might contend, is conceived by Tony as the first episode of the ‘Life’ he hoped for, one worthy of ‘Fiction’, of ‘the individual against society, success and failure, murder, suicide, death, God’ (p. 15).

When considered from the perspective of his retirement, Tony’s life contains little evidence of ‘importance’, as he reflects: ‘Had my life increased, or merely added to itself? […] There had been addition – and subtraction – in my life, but how much multiplication?’ (p. 88). Tony finds ‘consonance’, however, in the harmlessness of his existence, in the ‘state of peaceableness, even peacefulness’ (p. 68) that he has achieved in spite of his unavoidable feeling, in response to Margaret’s suggestion that he has ‘some issues from your past that you need to confront in order to move on’, that, ‘there might be some truth in it’ (p. 77).

When considering the fictional narrative that Tony has constructed to give ‘consonance’ to his own life, it will be useful to consider Frank Kermode’s divergent notions of ‘myth’ and ‘fiction’ as forms of human narrative. Fictions are, in Kermode’s simplest terms, ‘consciously false’ narratives,6 whilst myths are ‘degenerated’ fictions, ‘not consciously held to be fictive, and…dangerous for that reason’.7 A similar distinction can be drawn between the ‘fictions’ and the ‘myths’ thatconstitute the narrative of Tony’s life. The emergence of the scathing letter which Tony wrote to Veronica and Adrian in his adolescence shatters the ‘consonance’ of his personal history of ‘peaceableness’, revealing the spectre of a bitter, vindictive former self; Tony had, he now discovers, spitefully and vociferously invoked the suffering and demise of Adrian and Veronica, and ended his letter, ‘I hope […] the mutual damage will be permanent’ (p. 95). Read in the context of this revelation, the lack of narrative space afforded to Tony’s life after Adrian’s death becomes expressive of the reality of the ‘damage’ (p. 88) that suppressed and unexplored feelings of ‘responsibility’ (p. 150) for Adrian’s suicide has inflicted on Tony. As he admits to himself, ‘memory has increasingly become a mechanism which reiterates apparently truthful data with little variation’ (p. 64), sustaining a youthful, idealistic and now evidently fanciful notion of Adrian’s suicide as an ‘exemplary’ (p. 50) death.

The jovial exchange between Alex and Tony as they look back, years later, on Adrian’s life (pp. 50-51) might now be read in relation to Adrian’s own memorable outburst at school, his charge against his friends, ‘I hate the way the English have of not being serious about being serious. I really hate it’ (emphasis in original, p. 33). Tony’s attempts to discuss the causes of Adrian’s suicide, whether it was ‘self-regarding…just involving Adrian’, or ‘something that contains an implicit criticism of everyone else. Of us’, are belied by Alex’s playful refusals to engage earnestly with their past, ‘Well, it could be both’ (p. 50). When Tony finally establishes a dialogue with Alex, and in turn with himself, about his letter to Adrian and Veronica, they both adopt an approach that is off-hand, insincere:

 “Did he tell you I wrote him a letter telling him where to shove it?”
“No, but it doesn’t surprise me.”
“What, that I wrote it, or that he didn’t tell you?”
“Well, it could be both.”
I half-punched Alex, just enough to spill his beer. (p. 51)

Read in the context of Adrian’s jibe at the boys for ‘not being serious about being serious’ (p. 33), this exchange between Alex and Tony might be considered expressive of a certain defect in the English condition, their behaviour symptomatic of an inability to engage effectively with grave questions of history, and ‘responsibility’. Following their discussion, Tony needs only to avoid discussing the suicide with Veronica (‘she’d somehow twist things so that I’d end up not being able to think straight’; p. 52), in order to arrive at a conclusion that affords a satisfactory narrative ‘consonance’ to his, and Adrian’s, lives: ‘I did, eventually, find myself thinking straight…understanding Adrian’s reasons, respecting them, and admiring him…Did I think Adrian’s action an implied criticism of the rest of us? No’ (p 53).

Tony’s distant, superficial analysis of Adrian’s suicide and his subsequent disappearance, ‘slotted into time and history’ (p. 51), can be related to a wider sense of uncertainty that Tony associates with the history of his early life. Indeed, as Tony reflects back on this life, a disjuncture develops between personal memories of growing up in the 1960s and a collective, national memory of the period as an iconic cultural ‘saeculum’, defined by Kermode as one of those ‘fundamentally arbitrary chronological divisions of time’ that accrue significance through cultural enshrinement.8 Tony reflects on the temporal disorientation that typified his experience of these years, asking himself ‘wasn’t this the Sixties?’ (p. 23). At the national level, the period was conceived as a site of sexual revolution, but, as Tony reflects, ‘only for some people, only in certain parts of the country’ (p. 23). Such conflict within the historical narrative of social ‘progression’ towards liberal values stands clearly against Tony’s contrived sense of personal ‘progress’, justified by his claims of ‘getting more than my father had done’ (p. 22). This historical uncertainty in the moment of the boys’ youth is expressed, too, in Veronica’s and Tony’s sex life. Veronica’s ‘feelings’, which now ‘had far more persuasive force and irrefutability than any appeal to church doctrine’ (p. 23), are not sufficient to appease Tony’s sense of mistrust surrounding Veronica’s sexual reluctance (‘Well, I hope we’re not living in Nazareth’; p. 25), a reluctance that feels to him anachronistically related to a manipulative ‘wrangle for a ring’ (p. 22). Veronica’s angry rebuke to Tony that consummating their relationship before marriage ‘practically [made] it rape’ (p. 37) is emblematic of a tumultuous conflict between ideas of sexual revolution and conservative religious values.

  1. Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, Or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991), p. ix. []
  2. Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 47. All further references from this edition. []
  3. Kermode, p. 14. []
  4. Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending (London: Vintage, 2011), p. 1. All further references to this edition are given after quotations in the text []
  5. Kermode, p. 47. []
  6. Kermode, p. 41. []
  7. Kermode, p. 186 -187. []
  8. Kermode,p. 11. []

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