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150 pages, Hardcover
First published August 4, 2011
History is not just the lies of the victors; it is also the self-delusions of the defeated.The final straw for me was when he .
How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but—mainly—to ourselves.Some readers dislike Tony enough that it dampens or ruins their enjoyment of the book, but I had a great deal of sympathy for him.
I had wanted life not to bother me too much, and had succeeded — and how pitiful that was.I've felt those feelings.
But time...how time first grounds us and then confounds us. We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imagined we were being responsible but we were only being cowardly.
"We live with such easy assumptions, don’t we? For instance, that memory equals events plus time. But it’s all much odder than this. Who was it said that memory is what we thought we’d forgotten? And it ought to be obvious to us that time doesn’t act as a fixative, rather as a solvent. But it’s not convenient — it’s not useful — to believe this; it doesn’t help us get on with our lives; so we ignore it."It is the story of fickleness and subjectivity of memory that creates the unreliable histories we tell ourselves; the dissonance between what happened and what stories we choose to tell ourselves - because such unconscious lies are often what we just happen to need to feel alright about ourselves.
"How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but — mainly — to ourselves."It's the story that touches on allotting responsibility and blame - be it for the Great War or a breakup or a divorce or a suicide - and learn that the answers may not always be there. We can come up with a catchy and cheeky answers ('History is the lies of the winners', pretentiously and predictably states teenage Tony Webster with all the world-weariness of a sixteen-year-old) - but ultimately, the answers are never clear-cut, and everything is in the grey zone, and the realization is that of a sixty-year-old Tony:
"History isn’t the lies of the victors, as I once glibly assured Old Joe Hunt; I know that now. It’s more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated."It's a melancholic reflection of the reality of aging and the little differences between 'settling for it' and 'accepting reality'. And, what's pathetically and sadly true, we fail to really grow and change at the end of our life stories - after all, Life is not really Literature. Yeah, it's not a book to read when you're feeling a bit down on yourself. Because at the end "what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed."
"That’s one of the central problems of history, isn’t it, sir? The question of subjective versus objective interpretation, the fact that we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us."With this introduction, we take a dive into the mind of Tony Webster - a self-centered average guy who, like the rest of us, uses the subjectivity of memory to be the hero in his story, to be who he needs himself to be, to unconsciously tinker with the events until they seem just right. 'Yes, I remember exactly what happened!' is not that reliable, and Tony comes to learn that. Whether he actually takes something important from this experience - well, that's debatable
"It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age: when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others."
"Discovering, for example, that as the witnesses to your life diminish, there is less corroboration, and therefore less certainty, as to what you are or have been. Even if you have assiduously kept records— in words, sound, pictures— you may find that you have attended to the wrong kind of record-keeping."Tony Webster is pathetic, self-centered and self-righteous. His life did not turn out the way he thought it'd be ("This was another of our fears: that Life wouldn’t turn out to be like Literature.")- and he has been coasting through it, just an average guy leading an average life, far from the inspirations he may have had when back in his teens he was friends with a bright young philosopher (yes, a bit full of himself - but who isn't at that age?) Adrian Finn, who produces such pompous little gems as this one:
"History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation."And then, a few years later, Tony's university girlfriend Veronica Ford(the one he views through the prism of his memories as a supreme bitch) dumped him and dated Adrian, and then Adrian committed suicide, and then there were four unexciting mediocre decades, and now the above ex-girlfriend's mother left Adrian's diary to Tony - but the ex-girlfriend is not willing to part with what Tony comes to view as his rightful legacy. And along the path to reclaim that diary Tony embarks on a quest to turn remorse into guilt and guilt into forgiveness - in the most self-centered way possible. Along the way he also toys with shouldering responsibility for what happened in the lives of Veronica and Adrian - but, as I see it, this over-estimation of his own importance is yet another one of his memory delusions and instead he may be on the sidelines of this story, regardless of what his unreliable memory tells him his life story should be.
"Perhaps I just feel safer with the history that’s been more or less agreed upon. Or perhaps it’s that same paradox again: the history that happens underneath our noses ought to be the clearest, and yet it’s the most deliquescent. We live in time, it bounds us and defines us, and time is supposed to measure history, isn’t it? But if we can’t understand time, can’t grasp its mysteries of pace and progress, what chance do we have with history— even our own small, personal, largely undocumented piece of it?"But maybe, just maybe, the aging Tony Webster will learn something from the trip to the past he takes on his quest to recover Adrian's journal. But ultimately it's not about Tony at all; Tony is just a slate on which to project the final thoughts, the final lines of this novel that harbor a bit of hope for the majority of us, floaters on the safe waters of life, who may or may not meet their Severn Bore.
"There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest."This story is written with enough irony and melancholy to sustain a book of a much larger size. It's insanely quotable, to the point where you begin to suspect that certain lines were thrown in by the author with expectations of their future quotability factor. The language is smart and exquisite, sometimes a bit sardonic, sometimes a bit pedantic, and sometimes painfully genuine. Love this book or hate it - but you cannot deny that the writing is quite excellent.
"I don't think I can properly convey the effect that moment had on me. It wasn't like a tornado or an earthquake (not that I'd witnessed either) – nature being violent and destructive, putting us in our place. It was more unsettling because it looked and felt quietly wrong, as if some small lever of the universe had been pressed, and here, just for these minutes, nature was reversed, and time with it."
Again, I must stress that this is my reading now of what happened then. Or rather, my memory now of my reading then of what was happening at the time.From the first page, I was carried away by Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending and its wonderful story. For such a short novel it seems to waste no words, and only speeds between breaths to tell us about the capriciousness of our memories. I think it cannot be truer that memory is a fickle friend. More than a story, this was a lyrical lesson with a very precise rhythm of life and time. What time? The forgotten, that that has long passed and that we not always know how to remember. Yes, memory often enough plays tricks on us, but we go on living.
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, others slow it down occasionally, it seems to go missing – until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return.
"How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but - mainly - to ourselves."
Your winnings accumulate. But do your losses? Not at the racetrack - there, you just lose your original stake. But in life? Perhaps here different rules apply. You bet a relationship, it fails; you go on to the next relationship, it fails too: and maybe what you lose is not two simple minus sums... Life isn't just addition and subtraction. There's also accumulation, the multiplication, of loss, of failure.
Who has it said that memory is what we thought we'd forgotten? And it ought to be obvious to us that time doesn't act as a fixative, rather as a solvent. But it's not convenient - it's not useful - to believe this; it doesn't help us get on with our lives; so we ignore it.
I had been tempted, somehow, by the notion that we could excise most of our separate existences, could cut and splice the magnetic tape on which our lives are recorded, go back to that fork in the path and take the road less travelled, or rather not travelled at all. Instead, I had just left common sense behind. Old fool, I said to myself. And there's not fool like an old fool:...
I know this much: that there is objective time, but also subjective time, the kind you wear on the inside of your wrist, next to where the pulse lies. And this personal time, which is the true time, is measured in your relationship to memory. So when this strange thing happened - when these new memories suddenly came upon me - it was as if, for that moment, time had been placed in reverse. As if, for that moment, the river run upstream.
“Sometimes I think the purpose of life is to reconcile us to its eventual loss by wearing us down, by proving, however long it takes, that life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”A sad reflection that life isn’t a simple calculation of additions and subtractions but now and again a multiplication of loss. Tony Webster is a complex character, seen through one lens as he progresses through life and a different one looking back over time after he receives a bequeathed gift from an old girlfriend’s mother.