'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.'
So having declared on Monday that I had read The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, and that I had enjoyed it so much I now didn't want to read another book on the Booker longlist in case I found one I liked more, I have probably created a ridiculously impossible situation for myself.
Perhaps it was because I was sitting under the shade of the apple trees on a soporifically warm sunny day in that relaxed week after Port Eliot Festival and I was just ready for a book like this, who can know why it had such an impact.
It is another of those novels so chock-full of 'moments' of real poignancy and profundity that to take them out of the context of the whole, to mine the book for pithy quotes as above, is somehow to do it a terrible disservice. Except I know I won't be able to stop myself because my annotating 3B pencil (always a 3B) was willingly working overtime, and with a consequence that I feel sure Alan Jacobs would only applaud; my reading slowed to the pace that this book asked for.... and nor did I notice the horsefly biting my arm to bits for which I paid the price for days afterwards.
Tony Webster is in his sixties and in reflective mood as he looks back on the life events that seem to have resulted in an unexplained legacy of £500 from a woman he hardly knows, and it is his schooldays that provide a first port of call as he interrogates his own history looking back and trying to make adult sense of his adolescent friendships and actions.
With seemingly remarkably lucid recall, which Tony soon confesses is his 'best memory of their exchange', he recounts his final history lesson of the year...
'We could start perhaps with the seemingly simple question. What is History? Any thoughts, Webster?'
History is the lies of the victors,' I replied a little too quickly.
'Yes, I was rather afraid you'd say that. Well as long as you remember that it is also the self-delusions of the defeated...'
and somehow that little classroom moment stayed with me as I read on, whilst constantly trying to decide what was truth and what may be false memory, what had really happened in Tony's life given that for much of the book we only ever get Tony's version, and wondering too whether in the end Tony would see himself as victor or vanquished.
It was Tony's classmate Finn who perhaps offered a further clue a few sentences later ...
'History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation,'
It sounds highly pretentious taken out of context...I knew it would, but trust me it won't if you read the book. And somehow that established a base line to keep in mind as I read this beautifully wry, poignant and at times profound novel about a re-examining of the younger self, and the influence of memory with its tricks, and the imperfections and inadequacies it can reveal about a self we think we know.
As Tony reflects he wonders who said,
'That memory is what we thought we'd forgotten.'
and as new memories surface to challenge his certainties it as if
'...for that moment the river ran upstream.'
and Tony's older self is compromised and confronted by the potential for other versions and with it eventually perhaps will come re-evaluation and remorse.
I had to stop and think each time I came across one of these 'moments' in the book, sometimes just a beautifully constructed sentence of but a few words, because if I'm honest, I might still feel like twenty in my head but everything else tells me I'm a lot nearer Tony's age, and with that realisation came a much deeper reflection on everything Julian Barnes may have been doing here.
Drat the man for reminding that there is yet another birthday looming and surely only five minutes since the last.
For making me think about my younger self in the light of my older self.
And oh dear, oh dear, how those impetuous actions of youth can return to haunt that older self, in Tony's case the letter he has written to a friend and with far-reaching and tragic consequences, and when he finally makes contact with the person who may hold the key to the accuracy of all these memories, yet another version of the truth will hit him over the head like a shovel.
Poor old Tony who just doesn't get it, and it seems no one is going to tell him, he's going to have to figure all this out for himself, just as we probably all have to in the end.
I haven't lingered over plot because this is a book that engaged me at such an emotional level it could have been about... well about anything and the overlaying of those themes of memory and ageing would still have sufficed because at the pen of Julian Barnes they are wonderfully wrought.
The word is that I may have benefited from a serious gap in my reading of Julian Barnes to date, some are saying 'same old same old' of this novel, but that's a call I can't make because, but for Arthur & George, I have nothing else on my shelves except a volume of short stories still unread. I did make an instant purchase of Nothing to Be Frightened Of, Julian Barnes's 'fun and funny, painful and witty dissection of the awesome inevitability of death and its impact on the human psyche.'
It is part memoir, part meditation and makes an exceptionally good companion read to The Sense of an Ending.
'The heavy shine on the leaves of an extravagant pot plant...'
This is the late 1960s early 1970s and do you remember how no 'lounge' was complete without a Swiss Cheese plant or a Rubber plant and how we would diligently polish the leaves to a highly artificial gloss with some milky liquid from Baby Bio??
Oh it was only me? Never mind, it conjured up in an instant for me a house, a room, its furniture, its decor and colours, its mood, everything....and also me. The me that was then.
So The Sense of An Ending, for me 150 pages of incrediby valuable writing, less is more, the writer who trusts the reader to 'get it' even if poor Tony can't; an elegiac
novel about ageing and time, and the cover with its slightly rain-washed look, the feel of an over-exposed photograph and the dandelion head with the drifting seeds somehow all felt right too ... didn't we as children blow the seeds away as a means of telling the time?
For me a book about life's expectations and definitions of happiness, about nostalgia and Tony's take on it...
'But if nostalgia means the powerful recollection of strong emotions - and a regret that such feelings are no longer present in our lives - then I plead guilty.'
So I hope I have gone some way to explaining why I really don't want to find a book better than this on the Booker longlist. Yes I know it's all very muddled thinking indeed, but if I was a Booker judge I would actually be excited at the thought of this making the short list and having to read it again.
And now I'm in a real mess because I still have to read On Canaan's Side by Sebastian Barry.