“How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but – mainly – to ourselves.” - Tony Webster, The Sense of an Ending
History. For many, this word conjures images of ancient civilizations, dead kings, or even likeable, quirky professors who consider a discussion of Seven Pillars of Wisdom to be appropriate entertainment for a Friday evening. But in the realm of the mundane, history is something that each individual creates for him- or herself through the simple acts of living and breathing. And as difficult as world history is to accurately record due to individual and subjective preferences, prejudices, and pressures, personal history can be just as challenging to relate and even properly remember.
Personal history forms the crux of the novel The Sense of an Ending, written by Julian Barnes and published in 2011. The reader follows the narration of the primary character, Tony Webster, as he recollects his memories surrounding his close group of friends during those years leading up to and during their time at university.
On the surface and at the outset, these reminiscences bring some level of warm nostalgia to Tony. As the story progresses the façade begins to crack and peel, revealing a harsher, colder environment within which those past events took place, thus bringing forth a revised understanding of his past and the ramifications of choices made.
As a young person, I thought the oft-quoted phrase “know thyself” to be laughable. How could one not be fully cognizant of one’s own thoughts and feelings?
Lately it has become clear to me that developing self-knowledge most certainly can be a challenge, not only for the individual, but also for organizations and even entire nations. And, it is necessary in order to fully understand their history and, thus, themselves. Through this amazing tale, Mr. Barnes explores one man’s self-examination of his past and its results, which serves as an effective demonstration and warning of the power of self-delusion. In the words of Tony:
“History isn’t the lies of the victors…I know that now. It’s more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated.”
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