Ever known someone so wrapped up in themselves that they cannot fathom a situation or circumstance where they are not the centre of all that is occurring? No, I’m not talking about myself. Someone who writes themselves into the starring role of every scene and plot twist. Someone so deluded as to be incapable of recognising that the icy chill of uncertainty (around why people did what they did, said what they said, etc) is not coming from any hostility from the supposed “supporting characters”, so much as a complete indifference about his/her existence altogether. In other words, a person whose own narrative is so far out on the periphery of someone else’s story that they don’t even realise that this is the case until they’ve lost both feet to frostbite.
This is the character Julian Barnes has given us in Tony Webster. Advancing in years and declining in social skills, which is to suppose he had any to begin with, Tony is compelled to take a trip down memory lane after he is bequeathed an unusual gift by the mother of a woman he used to date forty years ago. The contents of this gift (of which the most important piece was a diary) cannot logically be accounted for, much less the woman’s motives; and so begins Tony’s quest to fill in the missing pieces. All paths lead back to the tragic suicide of his best friend four decades ago, Adrian, to whom the diary belonged. Tony’s ex, Victoria, had been dating Adrian at the time of his death, a fact he had been less than enthusiastic about, to put it mildly. In seeking answers, Tony fails to query even the most simple, straightforward, arguably most urgent of questions, such as, for example, what role the mother had in all of this and how it was that she came to be in posession of Adrian’s diary in the first place.
Tony is the kind of guy you want to shake by the shoulders, to wave your hands in front and say “Yo! Tonz!! It’s not all about you!”. But bumble on he will, even allowing himself to entertain romantic notions about where his recently rekindled “relationship” with Victoria may be leading. Tony makes no attempt to provide an objective view on why that relationship failed back then, happy to essentially blame it all on her. Not surprisingly, he is none the wiser about her several decades later either. In other words, Tony is basically a self-centred pompous ass.
But here’s the thing; he’s an authentic pompous ass. He’s a real guy, I imagine that he really exists. Him, and dozens more just like him. He’s the guy who’s plodded through life, done alright for himself, ticked the boxes, crossed his t’s, stayed out of trouble. He finds women confusing, doesn’t know why his wife left him and is apparently uninterested in the answer, and ultimately decides that life is quite enjoyable on his own anyway, thank you very much. He has grandkids and a daughter who doesn’t have much time for him, but that’s life isn’t it? He can be a right pain in rear end if he needs to to achieve his ends, which is quite often the case. Take the time he used his slightly-better-than-average intellect to argue the point with an insurance company for example, a months-long campaign for the sake of principal and nothing more. “Eventually, exasperatedly, they proposed a thirty per cent reduction in the lime tree’s canopy, a solution I accepted with deep expressions of regret and much inner exhileration”.
But when you’re not being amused and/or offended by Tony, you can’t help but feel sorry for him – especially when he is forced to assess which memories he chose to minimise, versus those he chose to aggrandize. The jaw-grimmacing letter he wrote to Adrian when he learned of their relationship, vs the meaning of the the wink brother Jack gave him when Victoria remarked “He’ll do”. Still, it all comes out in the wash. And when it does you feel sorry for Tony again; because what relief he may have felt at not being anything like as pivotal a character in events as he might have thought, is quickly replaced by a kind of sad deflation that he really wasn’t as pivotal a character as he might have thought.