“Camus said that suicide was the only true philosophical question.“
I’m not really a fan of that whole Amis / Barnes / McEwan thing: the smug self-satisfied cleverness thing. But I do seem to have a soft spot for Barnes’ later, shorter novels. (I except McEwan’s debut The Cement Garden from this sweeping and wholly subjective generalisation, as it was scorching.)
This novel, ultimately a reflection on time, memory, how time distorts our memories and also – crucially – how our memories of an event may be wildly at odds with the memories of others present at the time. The key point of this economical study, is that the main protagonist, Tony Webster, gets to relive some striking events from his early twenties, through the eyes of his girlfriend and a best friend at the time, 40 years later. It is a sobering experience, which in the end leads Tony to thoughts as to whether his whole life has been lived as a lie, or at least as a misapprehension.
At school, in their late teens, Tony and his two friends Colin and Alex, have their tight friendship, with their settled roles within that friendship, when Adrian arrives at school. A new boy, highly intelligent – taking the masters on at the their specialisms. Aloof, gangly and Camus-quoting, Adrian disrupts their order, without seeming to try. Early in the novel, in one class the news is broken that a previously unremarked classmate – Robson – has committed suicide by hanging. It is believed that he had ‘got a girl in trouble’: he left a note which read “Sorry, Mum.“
The boys in the class deals with the news in their different ways: many focussing on the fact that one of their number has actually had penetrative sex with a female. Days later, Adrian uses the incident to illustrate the philosophical view that, “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.” An intervention that causes, “…a perceptible intake of breath and some reckless head turning.“
The friends spend time together, including a day trip to London in the company of Tony’s girlfriend, Veronica. Portrayed as a stilted and difficult relationship in which Tony forever felt himself wrong-footed by the young woman. Never more so than a disastrous visit to her parents’ home in Chislehurst – where the father repeatedly puts him in his place, the superior older brother ignores him, while “the mother” as she is referred to, acts in a strangely disconnected manner before telling Tony not to let her daughter walk all over him.
Adrian goes to Cambridge, Tony to Bristol; Adrian and Veronica become lovers – after she has split with Tony; Adrian writes a formal letter to Tony explaining this new situation and hoping that it was not too upsetting for Tony. Tony replies bluntly.
The first part of the book ends with news of Adrian’s suicide, having weighed up his assessment of the value of his life, according to Camus’ edict, “…that suicide was the only true philosophical question.”
Having set the scene and introduced the main protagonists, the book then leaps forty years, to Tony’s reflections which are thrown completely by a surprise bequest from Veronica’s mother.
Barnes handles the plot’s devices and twists expertly, leaving the reader wrong-footed and checking back for the missed clues. It is a joy to read while not at all being easy or slight.
Tony reflects variously:
“You get to a time when life’s variations seem pitifully limited.“
“What did I know of life, I who had lived so carefully?“
“You get towards the end of life – no, not life itself, but of that something else: the end of any likelihood of change in that life…There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest.“
I suspect it says something about me, that this resonates. This is a novel based on introspection, anxiety and misunderstanding of fellow humans. And the fallibility of memory.