Suspending moral judgment is not the immorality of the novel; it is its morality. The morality that stands against the ineradicable human habit of judging instantly, ceaselessly, and everyone; of judging before, and in the absence of, understanding. From the viewpoint of the novel’s wisdom, that fervid readiness to judge is the most detestable stupidity, the most pernicious evil. Not that the novelist utterly denies that moral judgment is legitimate, but that he refuses it a place in the novel. If you like, you can accuse Panurge of cowardice; accuse Emma Bovary, accuse Rastignac—that’s your business; the novelist has nothing to do with it.
Creating the imaginary terrain where moral judgment is suspended was a move of enormous significance: only there could novelistic characters develop—that is, individuals conceived not as a function of some preexistent truth, as examples of good or evil, or as representations of objective laws in conflict, but as autonomous beings grounded in their own morality, in their own laws. Western society habitually presents itself as the society of the rights of man, but before a man could have rights, he had to constitute himself as an individual, to consider himself such and to be considered such; that could not happen without the long experience of the European arts and particularly of the art of the novel, which teaches the reader to be curious about others and to try to comprehend truths that differ from his own. In this sense E. M. Cioran is right to call European society “the society of the novel” and to speak of Europeans as “the children of the novel.”
The Sense of Uncertainty
History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.
It’s a marvelously provocative sentence. The book’s unreliable narrator, Anthony Webster, recalls the classroom scene in which it was uttered, recalls his friend Adrian’s easy brilliance, even recalls the historian Adrian cites as author of the definition: a Frenchman named Patrick Lagrange.
In their reviews, many critics mention Patrick Lagrange or quote his definition; in a sense, it seems to plainly assert the thesis, so to speak, of the novel. For The Sense of an Ending is concerned with the imperfections of memory —of its narrator’s memory in particular— and inadequate documentation and the illusory certainty we each have about our own history. Beneath this scarcely-interrogated certainty, Barnes posits, is an impenetrable morass of synthesized recollection and invention: experiences deliberately forgotten, lessons we cannot bear to learn, delusions we grasp tightly, fears we will not acknowledge, stories we repeat until we don’t remember the events they misrepresent. The Sense of an Ending explores how we compose the texts of our lives, and how as storytellers we lie to ourselves and others; how as historians we redact our perceptions and later our memories; how as academics we rationalize our behavior theoretically; and how as individuals we read our lives as inattentively and badly as we read novels.
It is fitting, then, that the French historian Patrick Lagrange is himself an invention, his remark a creation of uncertain provenance, his authority on the subjects of history and memory as questionable as our own. Among those reviewers who didn’t uncritically parrot his professorial assertion were some who seemed irritated by the false-flag fiction:
Quizzed by a master at school, Adrian comes up with a breathtaking aphorism: “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.” It turns out Adrian is quoting a Frenchman, Patrick Lagrange. Proof that Barnes doesn’t have any ideas of his own! Except that Lagrange has been invented by Adrian (on the spur of the moment), and self-evidently by Barnes, which means he does have ideas of his own! But this then throws up a rudimentary technical problem, namely, that we are expected to believe that Adrian could have come up with a formulation — and an alleged source — not only implausibly beyond the capacities of even the most precocious adolescent but distinctly sharper than anything else his creator manages in the course of the book.
This is an astonishingly dim analysis in many respects; notably, there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that Adrian concocted Lagrange; all we know is that the narrator Anthony Webster claims that he remembers Adrian defining history thusly and attributing the definition to a French historian named Patrick Lagrange. Did Adrian manufacture him? Did Webster remember him incorrectly? Did both occur? Did neither? Did Barnes mean for Patrick Lagrange to have been part of the fictional world of his characters? But in all other historical respects it is identical to our own!
With pristine irony, Barnes lightly enacts for us, for our experiential intellection, a moment of vertiginous epistemic uncertainty. We have not only a muddled and unreliable narrator, telling a story at some decades’ remove from the events which, at this point, can only be said to have “inspired” it; we have this narrator recalling words spoken by a friend to whose dark fate he may have contributed with an act he’s determined not to remember; and the words in question are, according to the friend, a quotation, that is, the friend’s recollection of the words of another; and he recalls that his friend recollects too the name of the author of the words: Lagrange.
There are too many potential points of failure along this chain of recollections and representations to count. Taken in its full context, it is a tidy, carefully-crafted satirization of the idea of epistemic authority, and it’s neither fussy nor demanding: read literally, it supports the novel’s themes; if one ponders the fact that the quotation is remembered, it supports the novel’s themes; if one digs and digs into it, and cross-references it with the world beyond the novel, one suddenly realizes that —as one of the book’s refrains has it— one didn’t understand, didn’t get it; and this supports the novel’s themes.
(That one clings to the authority of the definition, is attracted to its neatness, yet must accept that in its contextual totality it is self-subverting —approaching, from a distance, a sort of liar’s paradox— is delightful as well).
When authors attempt to enact some phenomenon, they must sometimes be clever, must use the structure of their novel or its relation to the outside world or some other element beyond its content to catalyze in readers something not described. This can be necessitated when an author’s themes concern aspects of the phenomenology of consciousness —how we experience deteriorating memory—, for example, or when our language is poorly suited to the task of describing a specific experience of the mind or world. An author may feel that the inner human experience of sorrow is something quite different from even a good description of sorrow, and so may attempt to make a reader feel sorrow deeply without talking at all about sadness, or, in some mysterious cases, anything sad directly (W.G. Sebald in particular excels at making one feel despair without being sure why). For some subjects, describing the experience with which the author is concerned would be to chase it away. To put it in another medium’s terms: you can make a movie about anxiety that shows people experiencing it, or you can make a movie in such a way that it produces anxiety in audiences.
In either case, there is a kind of knowledge being communicated. It could be disputed, by a particularly hard-nosed and reductive scientist, for example, that novels do not communicate knowledge of any real value, or at least none that would not be better-communicated, more clearly and without tricks, games, paradox, or play, by an essay. But this is not at all so. Beyond its capacity to entertain in ordinary senses —a crucial component of most wonderful art— the novel can communicate knowledge which an essay cannot, especially by manipulating the reader without his or her awareness, i.e., by enacting rather than portraying or describing.
The novel is a particularly superlative means for communicating experiential knowledge of an internal phenomenological sort; visualized narratives are too specific, perhaps, for us to inhabit the worlds they describe in the way we inhabit the worlds novels construct within us. We interiorize fiction as we do little else. For Milan Kundera, this quality of fiction —that it constitutes a form of knowledge— is paramount, the novel’s real raison d’être:
A novel that does not uncover a hitherto unknown segment of existence is immoral. Knowledge is the novel’s only morality.
The form in which knowledge is expressed is often as important as its content (when they can be distinguished at all); Tom Stoppard once noted of his work that “if I were to write an essay instead of a play about any of these subjects it wouldn’t be a profound essay.” But of course Brazil was profound, especially in its enactment of the hero’s narcissistic, universally-resonant determination to fantasize his private salvation, an enactment that exceeded any possible description by involving you in his self-deceit, in his childishly egotistic romanticism, so that you identify with him rather than judge him. Thus: you might perhaps learn not to judge when you might try instead to understand.
This power that fiction has to unfold inside of you such that you are inside of it, subject to its aims, permits The Sense of an Ending to very gently show you how impossible it is even to know a simple text. It is Barnes’ talent that not only permits him to wield this power but to do so delicately, without making a ruckus. The achievement is such that one does not conclude the novel asking “What really happened?” as one often does in works with unreliable narrators, but instead feels almost in awe of the vagaries of memory, the mysteries of selfhood, will, and morality, and the groundlessness of so much of what we think we are.
Memory is as persistent an enigma as any, so integral to us as to be us yet almost always ungovernable and frequently treacherous. We do not remember as we think we do, as Kundera notes in Testaments Betrayed while remarking on the immense talent Hemingway had for dialogue:
Try to reconstruct a dialogue from your own life, the dialogue of a quarrel or a dialogue of love. The most precious, the most important situations are utterly gone. Their abstract sense remains (I took this point of view, he took that one, I was aggressive, he was defensive), perhaps a detail or two, but the acoustisovisual concreteness of the situation in all its continuity is lost.
And not only is it lost but we do not even wonder at this loss. We are resigned to losing the concreteness of the present. We immediately transform the present moment into its abstraction. We need only recount an episode we experienced a few hours ago: the dialogue contracts to a brief summary, the setting to a few general features. This applies to even the strongest memories, which affect the mind deeply, like a trauma: we are so dazzled by their potency that we don’t realize how schematic and meager their content is.
When we study, discuss, analyze a reality, we analyze it as it appears in our mind, in our memory. We know reality only in the past tense. We do not know it as it is in the present, in the moment when it’s happening, when it is. The present moment is unlike the memory of it. Remembering is not the negative of forgetting. Remembering is a form of forgetting.
Two aims, then, for a novelist to pursue: the first is the expression of the present moment in text with “the acousticovisual concreteness of the situation in all its continuity,” which, for a human, means a great quantity of internal mental processes and experiences in every instant. It was one of Joyce’s aims in writing Ulysses, and it required of him that he undertake significant formal innovations to describe what had never before been described.
The second: to show how one cobbles together from scraps of confused perceptions, bits of tattered abstractions, and naked invention an illusory sense of certainty about oneself and one’s history. Parts of this process are unconscious, parts unavoidable —inadequate documentation and all that— but parts are willed, the result of our nearly magical capacity for self-delusion and our deep need to feel secure, safe, decent.
If one were to write a review of The Sense of an Ending discussing some of these ideas, it wouldn’t be a particularly profound review, and it would stand in absurdly unwieldy contrast to the airy felicity of the novel itself. Barnes does not labor over machinations or belabor ideas; he tells a short, even plain story of a man whose memory has indeed been a forgetting, an array of errors and deliberately suppressed, dream-like visions, and whose present and future remain to him a complete and utter mystery. It is not clear whether he is a good man or a bad man, only that like all of us he had some difficulty seeing himself clearly, and difficulty even in understanding that.
When he was 23 years old, Tolstoy wrote that
[so] many memories of the past start up when your imagination endeavors to resurrect the features of a beloved one that through these memories, as through tears, you see them only vaguely. These are memory’s tears.
In its sentimentality it is clearly the work of his youth, but even then Tolstoy was thinking as Joyce, Barnes, Sebald, and others have about memory, about how even the face of one’s beloved mother can become vague in one’s mind, how this isn’t the negative of forgetting but merely a form of it, and sometimes a dangerously false one at that. One flaw of our invented memory that especially interested Tolstoy was its tendency to overemphasize the agency of the individual; Kundera’s summary of Tolstoy’s thought in War and Peace (again from Testaments Betrayed) and how it relates to the judgment of others, in this case, artists:
Tolstoy argues against the idea that history is made by the will and reason of great individuals. History makes itself, he says, obeying laws of its own, which remain obscure to man. Great individuals “all were the involuntary tools of history, carrying on a work that was concealed from them.” Later on: “Providence compelled all these men, each striving to attain personal aims, to combine in the accomplishment of a single stupendous result not one of them (neither Napoleon nor Alexander and still less anyone who did the actual fighting) in the least expected.” And again: “Man lives consciously for himself, but is unconsciously a tool in the attainment of the historic, general aims of mankind.” From which comes this tremendous conclusion: “History, that is, the unconscious, general herd-life of mankind…”
With this conception of history, Tolstoy lays out the metaphysical space in which his characters move. Knowing neither the meaning nor the future course of history, knowing not even the objective meaning of their own actions (by which they “involuntarily” participate in events whose meaning is “concealed from them”), they proceed through their lives as one proceeds in the fog. I say fog, not darkness. In the darkness, we see nothing, we are blind, we are defenseless, we are not free. In the fog, we are free, but it is the freedom of a person in fog: he sees fifty yards ahead of him, he can clearly make out the features of his interlocutor, can take pleasure in the beauty of the trees that line the path, and can even observe what is happening close by and react.
Man proceeds in the fog. But when he looks back to judge people of the past, he sees no fog on their path. From his present, which was their faraway future, their path looks perfectly clear to him, good visibility all the way. Looking back, he sees the path, he sees the people proceeding, he sees their mistakes, but not the fog. And yet all of them —Heidegger, Mayakovsky, Aragon, Ezra Pound, Gorky, Gottfried Benn, St.-John Perse, Giono— all were walking in fog, and one might wonder: who is more blind? Mayakovsky, who as he wrote his poem on Lenin did not know where Leninism would lead? Or we, who judge him decades later and do not see the fog that enveloped him?
Mayakovsky’s blindness is part of the eternal human condition. But for us not to see the fog on Mayakovsky’s path is to forget what man is, forget what we ourselves are.
Thus a moral purpose for the novelist concerned with memory: to stay our ignorantly un-empathetic judgment of the past (and therefore of the present) by summoning this fog, not by simply describing it but by calling it forth to envelop us. Long after finishing The Sense of an Ending it lingers, and it must be the source of the novel’s title: on our paths within this fog, conducting our fitful, unending investigations of memory, we will not know an ending, a conclusion, a clear terminus to our wandering or wondering; we remain to ourselves a mystery, and can have at best only the sense of an ending to our inquiries. This sense, of course, is as unreliable as our narrator; we can have little confidence in our detection of a ground, an end, a resolution; and our conclusions are liable to be exposed, again and again after we reach them, as illusory. We should judge one another accordingly.