I wanted to add a few comments to my notes on Julian Barnes’s “A Sense of an Ending”. I have spotted what I think is a significant flaw at the heart of the novel, although to be fair it is one that is not apparent on a casual read. 

The novel’s primary theme is the imperfection of memory, which the narrator describes more eloquently as “some approximate memories which time has deformed into certainty” (page 4), and “that certainty produced at the point where the imprefections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation” (page 17). To illustrate this the letter Tony writes to Adrian and Veronica is exhibit A. In Tony’s memory this letter is unremarkable:

“as far as I remember,I told him pretty much what I thought of their joint moral scruples. I also advised him to be prudent” (page 42) 

– all fairly restrained, dignified stuff. The actual letter is far more robust, and is positioned by the narrator as being the cause of all the subsequent problems in their various relationships.

But this doesn’t work, because when Tony describes his recollection of the letter he is already aware of what he wrote, he has seen the original – unless we are being invited to understand that the narration of part one is divided from part two by the reading of Mrs Page’s will.

While possible that is unconvincing – why would Tony record the events of part one unless to provide background to part two? So he already knows his language was harsher than he describes it in his softened page 42 version. This is important to the understanding of Barnes’s central theme, that memory is fallible, but that documentary evidence can often teach us how flawed our memory is. Here the documentary evidence is to hand, but Tony still presents us with the pre-documentary version.

I appreciate that I need to set this out more clearly, but for now I think my central point is that the points Barnes are discussing are not fully thought through.

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