Barnes builds a compact, compelling little novel around some of my favourite themes: Memory and perception (flawed vs. accurate), nostalgia and history. Anthony Webster, now in his later decades, reflects upon his earlier years. At the outset, he makes clear that no one can trust memory implicitly. Impressions are all we have left.
I’m not very interested in my schooldays, and don’t feel any nostalgia for them. But school is where it all began, so I need to return briefly to a few incidents that have grown into anecdotes, to some approximate memories which time has deformed into certainty. If I can’t be sure of the actual events any more, I can at least be true to the impressions those facts left. That’s the best I can manage.Tony doesn't try to buff out the unflattering bits. He looks back on his adolescent self and school friends with all their pretensions, naughtiness and melodrama.
We knew from our reading of great literature that Love involved Suffering, and would happily have got in some practice at Suffering if there was an implicit, perhaps even logical, promise that Love might be on its way. This was another of our fears: that Life wouldn’t turn out to be like Literature. Look at our parents – were they the stuff of Literature?
Throughout the novel, Tony collides repeatedly with the challenges of the historian. What were the actual facts and events? Moreover, how did one person perceive them as opposed to another? He takes care to give the reader as much accuracy as he can manage. He wouldn't want us, for instance, to conclude that everyone was rampantly promiscuous in the 60s, despite the stereotypes of the decade.
After all, wasn’t ‘back then’ the Sixties? Yes it was, but as I said, it depended on where – and who – you were. If you’ll excuse a brief history lesson: most people didn’t experience ‘the Sixties’ until the Seventies. Which meant, logically, that most people in the Sixties were still experiencing the Fifties – or, in my case, bits of both decades side by side. Which made things rather confusing.
One of Tony's school friends, Adrian, dies an early death. Some 30 years later, Tony learns that someone has bequeathed Adrian's last diary to him. Unfortunately, the diary is presently in the possession of Veronica, a woman who had dated both Tony and Adrian. In his efforts to collect the diary, Tony revisits the tangled and messy relationships between them.
As Tony practically falls over himself to admit narrative fallability, Veronica tells him several times (as she had when they were dating), "You just don't get it. You never did, and you never will." But the difference between supposed opposites -- success vs. failure, insight vs. cluelessness, love vs. loathing -- are often less than one might think. Sometimes it's just a matter of perspective. Undeterred by Veronica's scathing comments, Tony tries to be a good historian, a humble, plodding, retrospective detective, picking through whatever material he's got. And he's not always as far off the mark as she thinks he is.
Discovering, for example, that as the witnesses to your life diminish, there is less corroboration, and therefore less certainty, as to what you are or have been. Even if you have assiduously kept records – in words, sound, pictures – you may find that you have attended to the wrong kind of record-keeping. What was the line Adrian used to quote? ‘History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.’His persistence (and a certain amount of dumb luck) produce the shocking bit of history that had eluded him. The sense of regret for some of his past actions, the sense of "If I'd only known..." is palpable. But that's life, and that's history. Our vision is never complete; we never act with full knowledge. Nonetheless, some of us act in more decisive and dramatic ways than others. Do we consciously add to our life stories, or simply let them accrete?
We muddle along, we let life happen to us, we gradually build up a store of memories. There is the question of accumulation, but not in the sense that Adrian meant, just the simple adding up and adding on of life. And as the poet pointed out, there is a difference between addition and increase. Had my life increased, or merely added to itself?I felt enormous compassion for Tony, especially as he tangled with his regrets. You're only human, I wanted to tell him; we all make mistakes. I wish I could show myself as much compassion as Julian Barnes evoked on Tony's behalf.
This blog, as I've said before, is my personal diary; I don't intend it to be a source of book reviews. In reading what I've written above, though, I feel I've done this book a disservice. I've jotted down some aspects of it that especially resonated with me, but they probably won't inspire anyone else to pick it up. So here is what Justine Jordan, writing for The Guardian, has to say. Succinct, and dead on.
A meditation on memory and regret slyly conveyed through the unreliable voice of a complacent man whose past gives him a nasty surprise, it's slim enough to gobble at a sitting and slips down with deceptive ease, but leaves plenty to ponder in its wake.