I’m a reader. Some books I enjoy, some I don’t, and lots are in-between. Occasionally, I read a book that has a deep impact.
A few weeks ago, finished a book like that: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. This 2011 Booker Prize winner appeared in my office around Christmas time as a gift from a member of Faith. I say that because I’m not sure it’s a book I would have picked up based on the dustcover description.
Barnes has written several novels and it’s clear that he is a master of his craft. The book is well-written and the plot wonderfully inventive. As a writer myself, I’m interested in the writing process and I kept asking myself, “How did Barnes think of that?”
The story opens by recounting a friendship between four English boarding school students. The narrator remembers events that happen after they finish boarding school and go off to university, including a romance that ends badly. In a happening pivotal to the story, she ends up with one of his friends.
The second half or so of the book jumps decades forward to the narrator as an older man, retired and now unexpectedly in contact with the woman he once lost to his friend. Who remembers what, how accurate are the memories, and what path has led them to where they now are in their lives — these are the questions that drive this part of the story.
And these are the questions that have driven me to some significant reflection on my own life. There’s no such thing as being in control of our lives. There are too many things that happen that simply happen — we are recipients or victims as the case may be. On the other hand, there is also the possibility of guiding the trajectory of our lives by the decisions we make, the work that we do, the values and priorities we set. So, the question is, to what extent will I simply be reactive to what happens around me? Or will I use some of my energy, determination and persistence to push my life in a certain direction? And if there are changes that I need to make for that to happen, am I willing to shake up the status quo ante with which I have become comfortable?
Here’s another big one that I’ve been thinking about: to what extent do we remember with any accuracy at all what has happened in our distant past. My father died last September. I’ve said publicly that my father’s life was in some ways tragic. I feel like he never quite found his calling and was always dissatisfied and restless. The most he ever stayed with any employer was 5 years, and usually it was more like 3 years. That, of course, meant lots of instability and change for our family.
After dad’s death, I began a writing project to go back and record what I remember of my father from my earliest memories up to the past few years as his health declined and he died suddenly in the fall. I found that memories of certain events jogged my memory to other contiguous events, things that I hadn’t thought about for years and years. So I wrote much more than I expected. And the narrative became not just a narrative of my memories about my father, but of my own childhood and our whole family. I tried to recount with joy and appreciation when I could, and to be honest about the whole thing, not trying to gloss over the struggles. As a result, my memories were not always complimentary.
So, now I’m wondering. How much of what I remember and what I’ve written really happened? How far off have I wandered into my own interpretations of those events? I’ve been around long enough to know that our memories never reflect exactly what happened. They are always conditioned by so much subjectivity. As I was I reading The Sense of an Ending, I realized that I’ve lived with the arrogance of convincing myself that I had written an accurate and definitive description of what my father was like as I grew up. But that’s wrong. The best I can say is that I’ve recorded what I remember; and it’s heavily influenced by the trajectory and events of my own life, and indeed, the very things I’m experiencing in my life in the present.
At the very least, I’ve determined that I’m going to shy away from language of certainty about what has happened in the past, and I’m going to seek to live with a little more grace, not only in my memories of others, but also as I hear others tell their own stories.
One of the signs of a good story is the reflection it prompts on the part of the reader. On that score, The Sense of and Ending gets two thumbs up.
Another interesting exercise is to see how your siblings recollection of events compares to yours or not.