Barnes never starts with characters. ‘I start with a situation, a moral error, and then I ask who it happens to.’ He described books as animals, with a structural exoskeleton—‘You have the idea of head, body, tail’—and mushier insides that the author must fill in. For ‘The Sense of an Ending,’ he’d originally envisioned a book with a long body and short head—‘a 3:1 ratio of set-up to pay-off’—but, in the course of writing, the body had shortened and the head had lengthened.
The germ of the book was a series of e-mails he exchanged with his brother, Jonathan Barnes, a professor of ancient Greek philosophy. Julian had written to Jonathan in an attempt to excavate details of their shared history such as how their grandfather killed chickens. Jonathan had replied, ‘I don’t think much of memory as a guide to the past.’ Over several years, Julian considered his brother’s point-of-view, and ending up writing a book about time and the tendency of humans, as time accumulates, to narrate our lives into shapes that the primary sources, were we ever to consult them, might belie.—2011 interview in The New Yorker
We live in time—it holds us and moulds us—but I’ve never felt I understood it very well. And I’m not referring to theories about how it bends and doubles back, or may exist elsewhere in parallel versions. No, I mean ordinary, everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly; tick-tock, click-clock. Is there anything more plausible than a second hand? And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time’s malleability. Some emotions speed it up, other slow it down; occasionally, it seems to go missing—until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return. I’m not very interested in my schooldays, and don’t feel any nostalgia for them. But school is where it all began, so I need to return briefly to a few incidents that have grown into anecdotes, to some approximate memories which time has deformed into certainty. If I can’t be sure of the actual events any more, I can at least be true to the impressions those facts left. That’s the best I can manage.—Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending (2011), ch. 1
Our first BookTalk for 2016 turns to Julian Barnes’s Booker Prize-winning novel, which deals with the themes of truth and fiction, memory, and suicide.