Last year’s Man Booker prize-winner, Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, manages to hit upon two trends that have been prevalent in the work of several past winners: a preoccupation with an omphaloskeptic reevaluation of personal history and the tendency to draw national allegory from this exercise.
Kazuo Ishiguro and Ian McEwan have built careers exploring the inherent limitations of individual perception and the truth that lies somewhere in the collision of multiple perspectives. Barnes, much like Ishiguro, gives us an older narrator looking back over his school days. He recounts friends and relationships of his youth and how they soured, then traces back over the path to discover the gaps and misapprehensions and lies he had told himself. It’s a comment on memory as a form of narrative, twisted away from dry fact by misunderstanding, self-valorization, self-flagellation and the other contortions necessary to seek sense from within limitation.
E.M. Forster may be to blame for the latter tendency. Since he asked who was to inherit a house and thereby England, it seems some writers can’t resist letting their characters act as the nation writ small. The Remains of the Day presented a butler whose employment, he comes to realize, stands in for a less heroic chapter in history. In The Line of Beauty, Alan Hollinghurst explores the harshness of the Thatcher years through the posh family that takes his narrator to its bosom.
Barnes is perhaps less guilty of attempting to create an exact parallel. But he nonetheless cannot help himself from prefacing his narrator’s reevaluation with a theory of World War One: “It seems to me there is—was—a chain of individual responsibilities, all of which were necessary, but not so long a chain that everybody could simply blame everybody else.”
But just as Barnes retreats from bold historical parallel into weaker tea, the ultimate product of his reconstructed memory falls flat, too, leaving philosophy for the realm of mystery stories in the last pages.