E.M. Forster, who was sometimes criticized for scattering deaths too wantonly over his own plots, complained of “the studied ignorance of novelists” and advised them to “recapture their interest in death.” He considered that interest to be a necessary element in true creativity. The novelist Julian Barnes easily eludes this criticism, being, as T.S. Eliot said of the dramatist John Webster, “much possessed by death.”
Dying and the mysterious state of being dead may be difficult and necessary subjects for novelists, but the question arises whether they are less urgent for the noncreative who lack the skill to make up stories about them. The whole business may have been easier when dying was considered the occasion for a ritual party for the family, the neighbors, and the clergy, yet apparently even that celebration did not of itself remove the sting. Medieval people also sought secular advice on the problem; for many generations they consulted the Distichs of the heroic Roman Cato, still thought helpful by Polonius in Hamlet, but frankly, in our eyes, not much use:
We well know that death shall come
And our future is unknown:
stealthy as a thief he comes
and body and soul he does part
So be of trust and confidence:
Be not too much afraid of death,
For if you fear him overmuch
Joy you nevermore shall touch.
Note the unhelpful non sequitur: “Death will do terminally bad things to you, so don’t be too afraid of him,—it will spoil your fun.”* Presumably it was not thought inconsistent to quote this advice yet continue to believe that the moment of one’s death was of paramount importance, a prospect to be remembered in daily prayer, and attended, when it arrived, by the appropriate sacraments and supplications—so unlike the awkwardness of the typical modern demise, probably in hospital, very likely alone in the presence of the Four Last Things—Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell—but unqualified to deal even with the first of them.
Included among the observations of Montaigne, who is often credited with the first modern account of death, there is one that notes how ready we are to deceive ourselves as we approach what he describes as “the most remarkable action of human life” (Florio’s translation):
Few men die with a resolution that it is their last hour, [preferring to believe that] the cause is not so desperate as it is taken; and [that] if the worst happen, God hath done greater wonders.
So we can deceive ourselves with hope; and our reason for doing so is simply that “we make too much account of ourselves.”
For Montaigne to die is after all not a weighty matter; just as “to live is no such great thing, thy base grooms and brute beasts live also.” We should reflect, with Montaigne, that our lives are inevitably afflicted by “bad and intolerable accidents”; and we should also remember how boring they can be; that the sheer repetitiveness, the bland satiety of life, can create a desire of death. Francis Bacon, in a famous essay, acknowledged that the fear of death was a tribute owed to nature, but it was also a moral weakness. He particularly deplored the fuss that attended the event itself—the ostentatious trappings of death, the mourning, the obsequies generally. In his opinion it is these, rather than the fear of extinction, that make death terrible.
But Bacon and Montaigne lived in an age that had revived Stoic philosophy, and Julian Barnes is certainly no Stoic. He is a death-hater—what, having studied Greek, he calls a “thanatophobe.” Renaissance essayists can say what they like—affirm that honor and glory, revenge and love, are all more powerful than death; but he is not impressed, and still dreams of oblivion and wakes in the night howling with terror. His is the authentic shudder, more a matter for poets than for thinkers like Barnes’s cool brother, the philosopher Jonathan, who appears in this new book largely to tease his sibling and dismiss his views on death as examples not of creativity but of “soppy” and crooked thinking. Jonathan prefers to live calmly in France, wearing eighteenth-century costume, breeding lamas, and, expressing himself as perfectly happy with things as they are, mortality included. But Julian’s response remains more Shakespearean than Baconian, echoing the passage in Measure for Measure when Claudio, condemned to death, rejects the Stoic consolation offered him by the Duke:
Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction, and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod…
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death.
Like Claudio and a great many other people, Barnes is afraid both of dying and of being dead. It is the Nothing of his title that he is most frightened of. He insists that his fears are entirely rational and will not allow that they are to be explained as deriving from mere egotism. It seems that there are parents who like to think that in some fairly weak yet comforting sense they survive through their children. Nowadays they might by these means claim to have triumphed over genetic death—a rarefied consolation, it must be said, and of no appeal to Barnes. He is not silly, not soppy, either. His creativity is certainly related to his thanatophobia, and probably feeds it, but he does not lose his common sense. He is willing to reflect that one can look at an old photograph of a crowd with some assurance that every member of it, down to the merest babe in arms, along with all their contemporaries who happened not to be in that crowd, are equally dead; and that a time will certainly come when there will be no human beings at all left alive on earth. So to wish for exemption from the general doom that all must die is recognized as entirely irrational. In the end there will be no trace of any of us, or of any books we may have written, possibly animated by absurd secret dreams of immortality but in the light of common day and common sense mere trash like their authors.
Barnes has an extremely lively mind, and a distinctive voice, which gives a certain welcome jauntiness or gaiety to his darker musings. Even in his earliest works, even when he is absorbed, as more than once he is, by lively questions of love and jealousy, death has a more than usually large part. The world, contrary to what feels, misleadingly, and like our natural desire, includes the fact of death, and to explain this calls for extensive and virtuoso rumination on that fact and its innumerable implications. Nothing to Be Frightened Of is a set of serious and seriocomic variations on themes that are sounded even in his first novels, Metroland (1980) and Before She Met Me (1982).
In Staring at the Sun (1986), Barnes provides thanatophobia with something not far short of a theology. The fictional date of the story is around 2003, in a future dominated by computers. Gregory, who has been thinking about suicide, books a session with a powerful state-run computer which can answer any questions, adapting the answers to what it takes to be the inquirer’s level of understanding. At first Gregory sticks to trivia, asking about the dying words and terminal maladies of famous people, including twenty-two American presidents, and about famous suicides, with praise for the ancients who understood the established rules of that game. (Barnes likes to quote Albert Camus, who held that the world being as it is we must, to live in it, construct our own arbitrary rules, as if for a game.)
But Gregory’s real problem is the nature of God, who is ultimately responsible for death. He gives up on the computer and tackles this problem on his own, listing sixteen distinct aspects of it, beginning, simply enough, with “God exists…. God does not exist…: God used to exist, but has abandoned us…. God exists but his nature and motivation are beyond our comprehension.” And so on. Item 15 imagines a state in which there is no God but there is eternal life. The passage puts one in mind of scholastic disputations, rule-bound, obsessive, clever, and ineffective. Next, Gregory turns to another computer, this one possessing therapeutic powers. When he tells it he is afraid of death it requires him to describe his fear—when, how often? Since when? He replies thus:
“In the late afternoon, the early evening, and when I am in bed; When I am driving up a hill; at the end of physical exercise; when I listen to certain pieces of jazz; in the middle of sex; when I look at the stars; when I think of my childhood; when I look at a happy pill in the middle of someone else’s palm; when I think of the dead; when I think of the living. How often? Every day of my life.” Since when? “Ten years, perhaps…. Before that, as an adolescent, with the same frequency and terror, but with less elaboration. Finally: it is a combination of physical fear, self-pity, anger and disappointment.”
The question now arises, is it death itself he fears, or oblivion? The answer is that he fears both. But surely, says the computer, he realizes that everyone dies? “I find that no consolation,” he replies somberly. Asked to describe his physical terror, he explains that it results not from the fear of pain but from “the fear of the inevitability of non-pain.” The machine informs him of a surgical operation that could remove his symptoms; but warns him to be sure it isn’t really death he (unconsciously) desires. Also he must understand that after the cure he would no longer be a writer. He goes home and reads a pamphlet on near-death experiences and the desirability of belief. But now new difficulties declare themselves: the lack of convincing evidence for there being a God, the problem of evil, the problem of infant mortality, and so on.
Although this passage occurs in one of Barnes’s less satisfying novels it testifies to his seriousness as a comic writer, and the new book confirms the description, being brilliantly written and also funny in a rather horrified way. The brilliance and the humor strike me as admirable adult versions of the bright adolescent joking of gifted seniors in an excellent school. Apparently loose, discontinuous, and journal-like in construction, the book is cunningly composed, in fact held together in a rather Proustian fashion, by the deft repetition of phrases and allusions. The result is a miscellany, rather on the lines of Barnes’s classic Flaubert’s Parrot, though of course lacking the narrative interest of the earlier book.
Barnes still adores Flaubert but, as this book shows, he has many other French favorites, including, for instance, Alphonse Daudet, Émile Zola, and Stendhal. Sometimes he stops worrying about God and death long enough to tell a good death-free story about one of his heroes. Stendhal provides a particularly deft anecdote, not irrelevant to a question of interest to Barnes, namely the clash between memory and creativity. In mature years he wrote an impressive account of his first trip to Italy, telling how he was so overcome with emotion when he saw the Giotto frescoes in Santa Croce that he fainted. (This response is apparently far from infrequent, and even has a medical name: “Stendhal’s Syndrome.”)
Many pages after recounting this medical and aesthetic curiosity, Barnes reveals that in a notebook contemporary with that visit to Florence the writer had given a more credible and more mundane account of his experience, without even mentioning Giotto. Practically every detail of that visit to Santa Croce is shown to be false: Stendhal had sore feet and wanted to get out of Florence and on the coach to Rome as soon as possible. The later polished version of his stay was lies, or art. This evidence of duplicity has not dimmed Barnes’s respect for Stendhal: nor should it, unless all autobiography is to be condemned on similar charges.
It seems that Jules Renard has, at any rate for the moment, come close to replacing Flaubert at the top of Barnes’s list of favorites. Renard is best known for an autobiographical novel called Poil de Carotte but it is for his journal that he is most admired, especially here, where he turns up at irregular intervals throughout, saying things like “I don’t know if God exists, but it would be better for His reputation if He didn’t.” But Renard and other sagacious Frenchmen are lacking when it comes to recording that authentic shudder; for which Barnes has recourse to the English melancholic Philip Larkin, and especially to the great, hopeless poem called “Aubade”: “Not to be here,/Not to be anywhere,/And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.”
However, Barnes’s reading habits and preferences are more numerous and idiosyncratic than these hints suggest, and he has, somewhat unexpectedly, a taste for Edith Wharton, Somerset Maugham, Edmund Wilson, and Wittgenstein, to whom he was introduced by a sixteen-year-old fellow-student at school. Barnes has also noticed that composers tend to be scared by death, Rachmaninov to a pathological degree. Sibelius, who belonged to a club in which discussion of death was compulsory, Shostakovich, Brahms, Ravel, and Chabrier are also included in this tale of death-fearing musicians. More might be added to the list, sure of a welcome in this book.
So much for the restless search for fellow-sufferers of genius. In the nature of the case, much of Barnes’s research material was to be found nearer home—in the lives and gradual deaths of his parents, in fainter memories of his grandparents, in recollections of his own youth, some shared with his amiably mocking brother. And as a skilled practitioner he is concerned by the relation of this kind of narrative to autobiography proper, and the relation of biography proper to full-blown fiction.
“We want to make the fear familiar,” said Shostakovich, “and one way is to write about it.” Barnes has certainly taken that advice. His interest in writers is inevitable, for they provide persuasive evidence of their fears, as nonwriters cannot; and in that sense they form an elect. When one considers Barnes from this angle, and takes into account all he says in this book about his life and work, it seems obvious that he would not deny himself membership, however modestly claimed, of that elect.
Barnes shows some professional interest in the question of genre—what sort of book is this that he is writing? He states firmly that it is not an autobiography and it may be too weighted toward death to qualify as “life-writing,” but he offers subtle characterizations of his parents and his brother, and he has not withheld some intimate detail of his own life. The hand of the novelist intrudes, as he knows it must; and that is why remembered persons, including himself, can become characters. Characters are thought good if they have depth, much of which the reader must provide, so it is permissible to ask how Barnes appears as a character, on the evidence he himself provides.
So one could say: he is the successful product of a perhaps exceptionally intelligent middle-class English family. His parents were both teachers of French, though he says they contributed nothing to his knowledge of and passion for French literature. He probably owes that interest to his schooling. It may be significant that he attended one of those admirable London day schools, large and designed for the brightest boys, their senior years inflamed with new knowledge, ribald wit, and intense though ill-informed sexual inquisitiveness (Barnes says himself that his “grasp of sexual matters had all the vivid imbalance of a sisterless autodidact at a boys-only school.”)
The family was comfortably off but not rich. His father owned a car (not universal fifty or sixty years ago) and a tuxedo. He was a Freemason. It was reported that in his youth Mr. Barnes had been a dazzling conversationalist, but he seems to have exhausted that skill before his sons knew him. Julian liked him more than his mother, rather surprisingly a Communist for some of the time. Barnes recalls her as usefully dominant in his childhood, “restrictive in adolescence, and grindingly repetitive in adulthood.” It seems that love was not often spoken of and young Julian wondered why his father never said he loved him.
These parents were rather like English versions of the petits bourgeois so despised by Flaubert. Neither read much of Julian’s writings, and what they did read they found indecent. Julian describes the sad business of dealing with what their parents left—photographs, school reports, menus, and theater programs—when they died. There is some pathos here; but it is comforting to think that these unremarkable but apparently good-enough parents must have understood that they had reared remarkable sons.
Julian has remained a brilliant and, considering the general English reluctance to meddle in French literature, an endearingly eccentric reader, and a keen student of sexual relations, especially of jealousy, as well as of death, though death seems to be his main topic here. He claims that writing about it neither increases nor diminishes his fear of it, especially since he can call his nightmares research for his book. Of his own death he says he expects it to be “preceded by severe pain, fear, and exasperation at the imprecise or euphemistic use of language around me.” Imagining worst-case deaths for himself, he describes drowning in a sinking ferry, or, more fancifully, stored live in a crocodile’s lair (a fate he insists is possible). More soberly he imagines a sudden death, perhaps intervening in the composition of this very book. And of course he must imagine some of the long miseries that may precede dying. He does not forget his parents’ strokes and their dementias.
Since Barnes is a novelist, it naturally occurs to him to consider the relation between the sort of imagining he does to feed his fear of death and the sort of thing he produces as an artist. In his novel Love, Etc. (2000) he makes an artist character remark that “the story of our life is never an autobiography, always a novel”—meaning that autobiography, to be worth the trouble, must have certain virtues that belong less to the honest record than to art—“a sense of form, control, discrimination, selection, omission, arrangement, emphasis…that dirty, three-letter word, art.” In Nothing to Be Frightened Of he notes that art of that kind may be deceitful, for we retell familiar stories “with pauses and periods of a calculated effect, pretending that the solidity of narrative is a proof of truth.” Truth comes veiled in fictions (lies, if you insist). “When asked What The Novel Does, I tend to answer, ‘It tells beautiful shapely lies which enclose hard, exact truths.'”
So Barnes cares about the truth and shapely lies. One of the reasons why the Christian religion lasted so long, he says, was that it was beautiful; but it was a lie, a great story told with art. If read as true its truth is endorsed by its beauty. But most of us have lost the ability to read it in that way. He quotes Edith Wharton on the difficulty we have with great art that endorses Christianity but not the truth as we have come to see it—the strange intellectual effort we must make to understand anything of what the stained glass of Bourges Cathedral meant to Christians who saw it when it was new and took it to be truthful; or how one goes about responding to “Giotto’s holy strip-cartoon in the chapel at Padua as nonfiction.”
Problems of this kind, requiring for solution some special entente between the aesthetic, the historical, and the ethical, are of particular interest to Barnes. What was religion supposed to do for us when it was taken to be true as well as beautiful? It was both a consolation in this life and a promise that the faithful would be rewarded in the next. Religion gave human life a sense of context, and therefore of seriousness, which is why Barnes, though not his brother, can speak of himself as missing God.
The difficulties presented by religious art reflect estrangements on a larger scale. Barnes broods over these, but nowhere is he more serious and apposite than in his discussion of certain Cycladic figurines he recently saw in Athens. These were made around 3000–2000 BC. Some are “semi-abstract violin shapes” and some are “more naturalistic representations of a stylistically elongated body.” “They are images of singular purity, gravity, and beauty.” The first response of the visitor is to understand these figures aesthetically, perhaps seeing in them some relation to Picasso, Modigliani, Brancusi. But then the aesthetic traveler takes in their “tranquillity and symbolic withholdingness.” He or she may now think rather of Vermeer or of Piero.
But finally the serious onlooker must consider these objects in their original historical and cultural context. The figurines were originally painted, so the exquisite color of the marble as we now see it contributed nothing to the original experience. When first seen the figurines were not erect and exposed to view but placed in graves invisible to all save the spirits of the dead. The modern traveler is left with nothing but his incorrect historical assumptions and his aesthetic response. Some knowledge of their history may in some way deepen that response, but it will probably not occur to him to ask whether these profoundly religious objects will console him in life and ensure his reward in death, though no doubt that was their original function.
Barnes is just into his sixties, old enough, but unwilling, to discover a coherent narrative, a “final meaning.” In attempting to produce that meaning “we are doing little more than confabulating”—making some kind of believable story:
I do not object to this atavistic need for narrative—not least since it is how I make my living—but I am suspicious of it. I would expect a dying person to be an unreliable narrator, because what is useful to us generally conflicts with what is true, and what is useful at that time in a sense of having lived to some purpose, and according to some comprehensible plot.
If such an exercise could have any result it would be a novel of sorts, meeting the description of fiction as a process in which the imagination uses lies to tell the truth and truth to tell lies. It might combine “Wittgenstein’s austere insistence—speak only of that which you can truly know—and Stendhal’s larky shamelessness.” And any writing that is genuinely imaginative, even, presumably, deathbed writing, aspires to the condition—of what? Not of music, but of the novel. “The story of our life,” we are told in Barnes’s novel Love, Etc., “is never an autobiography, always a novel.”
A self-obituary by the author is deliberately flat and ungenerous:
He achieved as much happiness as his nature permitted…. Despite the selfishness of his genes, he failed—or rather, declined—to hand them on, further believing that this refusal constituted an act of free will in the face of biological determinism. He wrote books, then he died…. He loved his wife and feared death.
Most readers will agree that this can’t be the answer to the life-and-death questions we’re looking for. He must be shamming dead.
Renard said “death is sweet; it delivers us from the fear of death,” but on this point Barnes declines to believe his hero. And it must be admitted that Renard’s remark doesn’t sound quite right. Forster makes much of what remains to me the unintelligible claim that “death destroys a man but the idea of death saves him.” Barnes wouldn’t find that helpful, either. It seems that nothing really helps any more. We know nothing about the matter that entitles us to have an opinion on it. But consolations and rewards are to be sought, if anywhere, in appropriately developed fictions, and we can at least count on Julian Barnes continuing to provide them.
October 9, 2008