BookTalk began 2016 with a flourish and Julian Barnes’s Man-Booker-Prize-winning The Sense of an Ending (2011). The evening featured an interdisciplinary panel of three speakers who presented on the novel’s treatment of memory, suicide and literary theory in relation to their specialisms, sparking off lively debate amongst everyone in attendance.
The first speaker was John Aggleton, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at Cardiff University’s School of Psychology. With great flair, John discussed the novel in light of his expertise on memory. Over the course of his presentation, John explained some of the process of how memories are formed—and more importantly deformed—before overturning many received wisdoms about the certainty of autobiographical memory. As became clear, repetition does not guarantee but can actually diminish, the accuracy of a memory. To prove this and other points, John tested audience members’ recollection through a number of lively activities. Can you recall what appears on the tail side of a one-penny coin? John also made the important point that memories are most likely to be retained but are also fundamentally biased if they can fit into a pre-existing framework of knowledge or schema. Illustration of this fact was provided by one of John’s experiments conducted on listeners of the Radio 4 soap opera The Archers. Perhaps John’s most striking revelation was that whenever we retrieve a memory, that memory is in a ‘vulnerable’ state and can be updated or disrupted. All of these observations underscored the poignancy of the moment in The Sense of an Ending when Adrian describes ‘History’ as ‘that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation’ (17).
Up next was Jonathan Scourfield, Professor of Social Work in the School of Social Sciences. Amongst many other things, Jonathan undertakes sociological research on suicide and distress. On this basis of this expertise, his first observations concerned the plausibility of Adrian’s philosophically justified suicide in The Sense of an Ending. Though acknowledging that it is a culturally powerful concept, Jonathan pointed out that such a suicide is extremely unlikely and Adrian would be an ‘outlier’. Unlike Adrian, people tend to end their lives because of social problems. Jonathan also noted that the character in Barnes’s novel bucked the trend in which the most common victims of suicide are middle-aged, working-class men with a drinking problem who are likely to be recently divorced. As Jonathan made clear, many suicide victims—usually men—are experiencing problems with intimate relationships. And indeed, it turns out that Adrian was embroiled in a personal situation that does change our view of his death. This insight led to another one of Jonathan’s key points. As a researcher, he is engaged in an ongoing negotiation between positioning suicide within a social context whilst remaining aware of the individuals involved in each case. This issue directly arises in The Sense of an Ending when the schoolboy characters question the importance of understanding the motivation behind their classmate Robson’s suicide.
The novel’s complex web of literary and cultural references were further illuminated by Emma West, a PhD student in Cardiff’s School of English, Communication and Philosophy. In her talk, Emma postulated that The Sense of an Ending was Barnes’s fictionalized retelling of the literary critic Frank Kermode’s famous work of the same name. In The Sense of an Ending (1967), Kermode posits that human beings need to have endings in fiction and life alike. Similarly to what Kermode argues, Tony not only turns to literature to explain his life but also tries to find an ending in order to make his life more like literature. But as Emma made clear, The Sense of an Ending shows Tony—and by the extension the reader—as being constantly frustrated by his search for an ending to the story of his or Adrian’s life. And when the central mystery is finally solved, the novel fizzles out into an unfulfilling climax. Ultimately, Tony cannot achieve the type of narrative coherence that literature has taught him to expect. Emma also drew attention to the fact that The Sense of the Ending appears to provide us with an ending of sorts in its final sentences: ‘There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest’ (150). Nevertheless, Emma quickly disabused the audience of any feelings of satisfaction by pointing out that these words bathetically echo an earlier incident in the novel when one of Tony and Adrian’s schoolmates is asked describe the reign of Henry VIII. All he can manage is the observation there ‘was unrest, sir’ before elaborating that ‘there was great unrest, sir’ (5). Perhaps only apparent after several re-readings, such lines are a subtle but ongoing deflation of any glimmering hopes for final answers or narrative resolution.
The three talks inspired a varied range of responses. Perhaps the most strikingly question came from the audience member who mentioned that her now-deceased husband had kept a diary for thirty-seven years. Fifteen years after his death, she was considering the wisdom of reading what he had written. In addition to this conundrum, BookTalk’s attendees raised topics as varied as: déjà vu; the construction of narratives around suicide; gender and suicide; taboo around suicide; memory and age; and memory and diary keeping.