The words ‘great unrest’ with which Julian Barnes ends this Man Booker Prize winning novel pretty much summed up my feelings on finishing the book. The revelations at the end, the protagonist’s musings and the general sense of being left, though with an answer to the riddles of the plot, without a proper sense of a neat ending for the characters all compounded my sense of unease. But that’s the point of this story. Life rarely proffers the handy happy/dramatic ending that ‘great’ literature espouses and holding a mirror up to the inadequacies of life is never going to make for a comfortable read.
Tony Webster and his friends meet Adrian Finn at school. Clever, philosophical Adrian provides a point of comparison and arbiter of logical thought for Tony who is, as most who meet Adrian, bewitched by his considerable brain power. The consequence of thought married with action takes Adrian on an unexpected path, the result of which reverberates through Tony’s life. The critics on the book sleeve have called this a masterpiece. I’d be hard pushed to offer any counterargument.
‘ ‘’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 history in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us.’’ ‘
‘ Old Joe Hunt said when arguing with Adrian that mental states can be inferred from actions. That’s in history – Henry VIII and all that. Whereas in the private life, I think the converse is true: that you can infer past actions from the current mental states.’
‘He had a better mind and more rigorous temperament than me: he thought logically, and then acted on the conclusion of logical thought. Whereas most of us, I suspect, do the opposite: we make an instinctive decision, then build up an infrastructure of reasoning to justify it. And call the result common sense.’
’Some of the freckles I once loved are now closer to liver spots. But it’s still the eyes we look at, isn’t it? That’s where we found the other person, and find them still. The same eyes were in the same head when we first met, slept together, married, honeymooned, joint-mortgaged, shopped, cooked and holidayed, loved one another and had a child together. And were the same when we separated.
But it’s not just the eyes. The bone structure stays the same, as do the instinctive gestures, the many ways of being herself. And her way, even after all this time and distance, of being with me.’‘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.’
‘Does character develop over time? In novels, of course it does: otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a story. But in life? I sometimes wonder. Our attitudes and opinions change, we develop new habits and eccentricities; but that’s something different, more like decoration. Perhaps character resembles intelligence, except that character peaks a little later: between twenty and thirty, say. And after that, we’re just stuck with what we’ve got. We’re on our own. If so, that would explain a lot of our lives, wouldn’t it? And also – if this isn’t too grand a word – our tragedy.’