The first time I met Julian Barnes (at a book signing in Edinburgh as part of the festival) I told him that I very much wanted to do a PhD on his work. He immediately asked me whether he needed to be dead for that. Apparently it’s the rule in France, and he recounted how the day after Gide’s demise, there was a queue of hopeful dissertation-submitters that stretched right the way around the Sorbonne. I assured him that being alive was fine by me and the Board of Graduate Study. At the time I just thought this was a charming and intellectually astute comment, but having recently read his book Nothing To Be Frightened Of, part-memoir, part-treatise that explores his debilitating fear of dying, I now see it as something altogether different. Barnes describes how he is prone to le réveil mortel, thrust from sleep into blistering consciousness of the possibility of extinction, shouting and sweating and fearful to the core. Whilst this may have been tricky enough to deal with in the past, Barnes is poignantly aware that he is now past 60 and therefore closing in on his mortality with every passing year. He could live to be 100, of course, and then again he could not. But in any case, the time is ripe to publish a book that seems to have been fermenting in his writerly mind for decades.
How to approach a terrible fear of death in a productive manner? Barnes weaves together three areas of evidence and insight: first of all his family history, secondly his musings on his agnosticism and thirdly his vast array of knowledge in literature and science. The amount of information that he wields is extraordinary, and never has he written better. Barnes has rarely produced an inglorious sentence in his career, and in this book he lets rip with his distinctive voice on a topic that rewards a mixed treatment of reminiscence, anecdote and analysis. But whilst the material is consistently good, full of the spark and vitality that belies its central topic, I have to confess to being unreasonably fascinated by the autobiographical dimension. Julian Barnes was born the second son to two dutiful but emotionally distant parents. His father, gentle, self-deprecating, kindly, is the favoured parent, but Barnes seems never to have been able to get close to him because of his ‘solipsistic’ and controlling mother. He’s never less than polite about her, but it’s the kind of icy politeness that might freeze hell over. Even when his father is dying, on the last visit he makes to him (as it turns out) his mother won’t let the two alone together and bustles him into the hospital room declaring ‘Look who I’ve brought you.’ It seems like a small thing, but then all tips of icebergs look inoffensive. In between Julian and his parents stands another obstacle: an older brother who grew up to be an academic philosopher and against whose cutting intellect – laced with barbed wire – Barnes seems to have collided on many an occasion. From the disdainful heights of his superior intelligence, this older brother declares Barnes’ opening gambit ‘I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him’ to be ‘soppy’. But never fear, Barnes has space and time in his own domain to enjoy the subversive cunning and the meticulous revenge of the younger child:
‘Do you have a clear enough picture of my brother? Do you need more basic facts? He is three years older than me, has been married for forty years, and has two daughters. The first complete sentence uttered by his eldest daughter was ‘Bertrand Russell is a silly old man.’ He lives in what he tells me is a gentilhommière (I mistakenly called it a maison de maître: verbal gradations of house-type in France are as complex as those formerly applied to women of easy virtue.) He has half a dozen acres, with six llamas in a paddock: possibly the only llamas in the Creuse. His special area of philosophy is Aristotle and the pre-Socratics. He once told me, decades ago, that he had ‘given up embarrassment’ – which makes it easier to write about him. Oh yes, and he often wears a kind of eighteenth-century costume designed for him by his younger daughter: knee breeches, stockings, buckle shoes on the lower half; brocade waistcoat, stock, long hair tied in a bow on the upper. Perhaps I should have mentioned this before.’
I had to quote that in full because I love it, particularly the last sentence where you can hear the scrape of the knife twisting. Barnes admires his brother immensely – grudgingly, too, but with the faint awe that never leaves sibling rivalry, no matter how old or successful the siblings. Barnes doesn’t want to defer to him, but it seems he’s afraid that his blunt-edged and sharply worded certainties might just turn out to be the truth. His mother didn’t help much here, either. ‘One of my sons writes books I can read but can’t understand, the other writes books I can understand but can’t read,’ she declared, denouncing Barnes’ first novel as ‘filth’. Barnes advised against her reading the next one, ‘But my mother was undeterrable, and duly reported back that parts of it “made my eyes stand out like chapel hatpegs”.’ It’s a brilliant description, for all it might have been a maddening one to Barnes. And that’s the image that comes back of this family – linguistically rich, erudite, pedantic, smart, but coldly critical too. It’s been regularly suggested by the reviewers that Barnes’s books lack emotion and fail to move the reader, but I never found that to be the case. I rather thought of him as a writer of great rage and eroticism and playfulness, all of which was generously crammed into the gymnastic displays of his sentences. Like one of his literary heroes, Flaubert, Barnes has never been interested in sentiment or the easy manipulation of the reader’s emotions; he wants you to think, but that has never precluded feeling too.
And interestingly enough, that’s where the heart of the trouble lies with Barnes’ fear of death. I felt a real tension across this book between knowledge and emotion. Knowledge remains the privileged term, to an excessive extent. Barnes knows he is the ‘emotional one’ in the family but understands this to be a despised position, one that is barely tolerated, poorly accommodated. So when he approaches his fear of death he tries to find a way of thinking about it or anticipating it that settles him intellectually, and of course it’s impossible. The book is, on one level, a compilation of the kind of reassuring theories and approaches others have attempted to dredge together, and inevitably they are all open to being undermined, not least by death itself. It’s true. Death is unspeakably ghastly and it’s unavoidable; we are all going to face it with mortal horror, eventually. Barnes will not accept comfort unless he can find some kind of intellectual framework that satisfies him, and in the absence of religion he can’t think of what it might look like. I, by contrast, would say that knowledge is by no means a decent response to fear; in fact the two are radically incompatible and mutually resistant, like oil and water. Profound emotion can only be tackled on its own terms and while it lies ignored, no comfort can truly be found.
So what I notice Barnes lacks in all this is a holding position. He’d like knowledge, or at a pinch experience, to provide it for him, but there’s no sense anywhere that the prospect of death makes him feel utterly terrified, and that’s okay. In fact, it’s more than reasonable, but it’s only (and far from ‘only’) an emotion that, if he holds tight, will be assuaged by the sheer fact of life continued in the moment. When you look at his family you can see it’s something of a comfort-free zone, full of resistances and scoffings and misrecognitions. I got the image of a Julian Barnes who rather needed a hug, but who was the kind of child that’s all elbows and awkwardness when you try to give it to him. His fascination with religion fits into this mould, I felt. Spirituality, at its best, consists in finding ways to use the concept of God as a holding zone, where fears and anxieties can be placed in safe hands, where courage and comfort can be mortgaged. Instead Barnes privileges neuroscience, attributing to this embryonic field of study a certainty that I think is unreasonable. It’s the preening vanity of science that it comes to absolute conclusions, but a quick look back at history should remind us that the men in white coats have always said ‘this will cure you’ and ‘you won’t feel a thing’ with consistently dubious authority. Science only ever gives us the best answer so far, and most good scientists will be quick to point out the partiality of what they know. Still, I guess if you favour emotionless knowledge, then science is probably its epitome. But, for believers, it matters not a jot that no one has yet located the walnut-sized tardis in the brain where the soul resides, because for them, an intrinsic part of the self is always located in the unspecific au-délà, the placeless beyond, being held or held over by forces beyond comprehension.
But as I say, this book isn’t really about finding comfort. It’s about All-comers against death vs. Barnes and his side-kick, invincible Thanatos. And the matches are really worth watching. And so it’s by no means a comfortable book; but it’s rich and fascinating and quite brilliantly written. One of the best writers we have at the height of his powers, tackling a subject of obsessional interest to him – what’s not to like? Well, only the final outcome.