Deconstructing our memories

We think we own our history and version of what happened in our past. As time goes by, we may find that there are events that elude us as we reconstruct our memories. We remember things in the manner that allow us to move forward. Thoughts come and go and if you practise meditation, you understand you do not own these thoughts, you let them go. At times, a tune just popped into your head and you think about the time you heard the song or a familiar sound, an aroma, a photograph, a letter somehow sends you down your memory lane and you become all whimsical, and start reminiscing and reconstructing the past.

I re-read The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes and am still moved by its prose even though I already knew the ending. It is a story about how we may not remember things the way they actually happened and the truth we avoid knowing about ourselves.

Here is an excerpt.

‘When you’re in your twenties, even if you’re confused and uncertain about your aims and purposes, you have a strong sense of what life itself is, and of what you in life are, and might become. Later … later there is more uncertainty, more overlapping, more back-tracking, more false memories. Back then, you can remember your short life in its entirety. Later the memory becomes a thing of shreds and patches. It’s a bit like the black box aeroplanes carry to record what happens in a crash. If nothing goes wrong, the tape erases itself. So if you do crash, it’s obvious why you did; if you don’t then the log of your journey is much less clear. ‘  –   The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes

Millennium Bridge, London

There are times we think we knew what happened when we had not known what actually happened just like Tony Webster in the story. Also you like to remember yourself as a kinder person only to be reminded that you were not as kind as  you think you were. In fact you could be vengeful. We have to be selective in what we remember from the past.  It is a matter of  self- preservation, an instinct necessary for us to go on living our lives. No matter how painful a memory once was, given enough time, when you look back, you try to make sense of what actually happened and the impact it had on you. You  think you have moved on but there are things you may have misunderstood or wrongly assumed a certain conclusion.Quite often it is probably best that you do not unearth something you had not known and you may end up feeling unsettled and wistful as you could never undo the past.

Inside Tate Modern

In the story, Tony Webster who is in his sixties, receives a letter from a lawyer, one Eleanor Marriott from Messrs Coyle, Innes & Black writing ‘In the matter of the estate of Mrs Sarah Ford (deceased)’. Mrs Sarah Ford has left him a sum of £ 500 and a diary of Adrian Finn,  a  friend from school. Adrian has taken his own life. When Tony was studying at Bristol University, he used to go out with Mrs Ford’s daughter, a headstrong Veronica. It was a memory , painful at the time for Tony. The pain has not lasted because he has an instinct for self-preservation. He believes that he put Veronica out of his mind when they broke up four decades ago.  He is presently divorced and retired. He was married to Margaret with whom he remains on amicable and friendly terms  after their divorce. They have a daughter named Susan  who is married to Ken,  a medical doctor. That is his story but that is not the main story.

Adrian was  the newcomer in Tony’s school and was absorbed into Tony’s group. Alex and Colin were Tony’s clique. They were book-hungry, sex-hungry, meritocratic, anarchistic and pretentious. What they had was adolescent friendship and when they finished school, they promised lifelong friendship and went separate ways. Adrian, being the smartest won a scholarship to Cambridge, Tony read history at Bristol, Colin went to Sussex and Alex went into his father’s business. And then life took over, everything else is history. At Bristol, Tony met Veronica and he introduced her to his clique. Veronica appeared to be more worldly and confident. There was tension, Tony had trouble understanding Veronica’s mind. Tony remembered the following exchange. In his mind, this was the beginning of the end of their relationship.

 ‘You’re quite cowardly, aren’t you, Tony?’

I think it’s more that I’m …peaceable.:

Well, I wouldn’t want to disturb your self-image.’

After they broke up, Adrian started going out with Veronica. Adrian and Veronica wrote to Tony asking for his permission and Tony was bitter and spiteful in his reply  to them which proved to be damaging…..

Tony tries to grapple with what happened in the past and why Veronica’s mother had Adrian’s diary. He decides to contact Veronica who has possession of the diary. He then receives a letter from Mrs Marriott enclosing photocopy of ‘a fragment of the disputed document’ that shows only scraps of what Adrian has written. Finally Veronica agrees to meet and suggests that they meet in the middle of the Wobbly Bridge, the new footbridge across the Thames, linking St Paul’s to Tate Modern. But Veronica has destroyed the diary. Instead she hands him an envelope containing a photocopy of the letter he wrote to Adrian. After reading what he wrote, he is left with a feeling of remorse. It does not help when Veronica says, “ You just don’t get it, do you? You never did, and you never will.”

Here are some excerpts from the novel.

‘But time….How time first grounds us and then confounds us. We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imagined we were being responsible but were only being cowardly. What we called realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things rather than facing them. Time ….give us enough time and our best supported decisions will seem wobbly, our certainties whimsical.  ‘

                                                                     –   The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes  @ page 93

‘ Does character develop over time? In novels, of course it does : otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a story. But in life? I sometimes wonder. Our attitudes and opinions change, we develop new habits and eccentricities; but that’s something different, more like decoration. Perhaps character resembles, intelligence, except that character peaks a little later; between twenty and thirty, say. And after that, we’re just stuck with what we’ve got. We’re on our own. If so that would explain a lot of lives, wouldn’t it? And also – if this isn’t too grand a word- our tragedy.’ –        

–   The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes  @ page 103


But we also learn something else:that the brain doesn’t like being typecast. Just when you think everything is a matter of decrease, of subtraction and division, your brain, your memory, may surprise you. As if it’s saying : Don’t imagine you can rely on some comforting process of gradual decline – life’s much more complicated than that. And so the brain will throw you scraps from time to time, even disengage those familiar memory-loops. That’s what, to my consternation, I found happening to me now.’

–   The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes  @ page 112

Brilliant. It is about how capricious our mind is and our memory is unreliable. The Sense of an Ending is the winner of the David Cohen Prize and the Man Booker Prize 2011.

Here is a post written in 2013.


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