There’s something else in that quote too, the line claiming “life will teach you”? One might wonder how so, what’s the pedagogy? But Barnes is not one to hit you over the head with whatever point he is trying to construct. Well, at least not in this particular novella he isn’t. To me it means, as derived from the rest of the reading: the sheer experiential passage of time, life as a progression of people and events one moves through and by dint of which one might attain a clearer understanding of “reality”. The realities then are [multiply to become] as many as there are lived lives; in some perverse way one could perhaps think of it as an infinitely drawn out rite of passage the object of which is not to become a “man” or a “woman” or a “responsible citizen” but somebody who knows the dimensions and “inner secrets” of her/his own reality. The reality is being taught one-moment-after-another in the course of the steadily progressing lesson of the present…and isn’t that what we hear time and again, a cryptic rejoinder to every single instance of surprise and ignorance: You learn all your life… this is a class that knows no bells. The best you can hope for is a No-Bell award, a Noble prize.
Realism? I think not. The genius of well-working memory, as I see it, is that it adapts to your current psychological needs. Suddenly new evidence pops up that you all but forgot about and things that might have seemed important earlier go amiss somewhere in that lumpy neural vault. Piece of Evidence A, TSoaE p.43: But whenever I looked back on that unhappy weekend, I realized that it hadn’t been just a matter of a rather naïve young man finding himself ill at ease among a posher and more socially skilled family. … But I could sense a complicity between Veronica and her heavy-footed, heavy-handed father, who treated me as substandard.
T. W. keeps monomanically revisiting this weekend of his past like it’s the very finest stretch of memory lane to re-run but every time some different version of it crops up. It is evident that the emotional trauma or autobiographical momentousness of that weekend is vast yet the interpretation varies wildly according to Webster’s going concerns. While the people and places are culled from the past, the emotions and thoughts are hauled from the present, the two of which in blended juxtaposition amount to all of a memory, one of life’s object lessons.
So with memory, as with all other parts of human subjectivity, there can, I believe, be very little to no “realism”…if we conceive of it as an interest-free, passion-neutered introjection of the empirical realities. In fact what we see with Webster, though it is not the concept that comes to mind reading the novel, is a Dali-type surrealism, the schizophrenic methodology that seeks to establish the bonds of meaning that exist between the most disparate signifiers of one’s life: that gadfly there on the window-pane, bashing its head towards the wider world, doesn’t it just so very aptly symbolize my woebegone struggles at my workplace? Are we not all of us pawns of glasswar? Some place there lies hidden a vast complicity.
Yet maybe the realism Barnes has in mind via his narrator is a less convoluted one: painfully coming to know one’s place in life, becoming excruciatingly familiar with one’s abilities and [lack of] talents, knowing the boundaries of an ordinary life, accepting them with a slow burn in one’s stomach, the fading flame of ambition and, hell, the stumping grind of one year piling on top of the next, until, consciously or less so, one finds oneself ticking them off against some imaginary zero, ground zero, groan zero, that terminal, unaspirated whimper in one’s eighties.
Death enters TSoaE through Adrian, boy-history-genius, a gracious suicide if ever there was one. You can only retain a memory of people up until the moment when they die and then, with great speed, it starts fading. Maybe today’s generation can do something about this in terms of looking at pictures to revive the living impression of the departed but something tells me that is [for the most part] not the case. The thing about memory is that it tends to spring into action when we least want it to, whether painful memories of the deceased, faded paramours or plain, irreversible failure. Faces and facts flooding us when all we want is to stay high and dry in the present. If anything, you only want little polished pieces of past’s flotsam washing up on the beach: “We were already turning our past into anecdote” [p.53].
Back a bit: Today’s generation raising yesterday’s [digitalized] ghosts? Probably as much or little as any generation before, even facebook operatives know the wisdom and dignity and brand-image-value in deactivating a dead person’s profile [permanently one would hope]. Death, memory. They can conspire to confuse time’s neat progression; again in the face of TSoaE I compulsively searched mine own memory: my great-great-grandfather was 29 when he passed away so that I would now be his elder, would regale him with words of wisdom and in a few short years, become his conceivable father. What else? I have a starkly etched image of my sister as a kindergarden-student, an image of her wooly head as we dropped her off at Montesori. Every now and again, for years, this memory bubbles up and I don’t, rather can’t quite understand how my sister of flesh and bone managed to overcome, outgrow this robust memory of mine, so stark, so clear, so real.
And then there are other times when memory instead of having a forlorn or paralytic effect, is edifingly telescopic in its ability to focus on a few noteworthy doodle-doings and images: “By now I’d left home, and started work as a trainee in arts administration. Then I met Margaret; we married, and three years later Susie was born. We bought a small house with a large mortgage; I commuted u to London every day. My traineeship turned into a long career. Life went by” [p.54]. It’s the last sentence that stands out to me, it reminds me of another wayworn phrase that could hardly be truer: life is what happens while you’re busy doing something else. So then memory [especially with its sudden revelations of minutiae one has all but forgotten about] is maybe a way of catching up with what has actually even happened in life all this time, of getting the narrative straight/linear in retrospective, of typing up one’s own TSoaE. What is worth remembering and what can be tossed in the neural dustbin?
And memory turned into telling and writing, lastly [this would be a decent or apposite closing paragraph] is also the battle-scarred escutcheon of survival, that there is yet life beneath that corpse-pile of years: “I survived. ‘He survived to tell the tale’ – that’s what people say, don’t they? 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” [p.56]. Good chance this is what we try to do: kick history in the groin once or twice before its big brother time thwacks our ticker.