Dead Right

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.

13 thoughts on “Dead Right

  1. This sounds like a wonderful book…and Barnes’ brother sounds like a twit. You say “the first time I met Julian Barnes”…of course I have to ask, did you meet him again? What was that like? I love what you say about the tension between knowledge and emotion. And of course, that is the big tension for me when confronting my own fear of death. I’m sure you’re right that knowledge isn’t a decent response to fear, but I understand the impulse to use knowledge as a defense. But of course, “profound emotion can only be tackled on its own terms and while it lies ignored, no comfort can truly be found.” I know you, and my therapist, are right! Anyway, this sounds fascinating (and I have to admit, I’m intrigued by the autobiographical bits, too) so I’m going to go out and get this book now. Thanks!

  2. Oooh, very interesting-sounding book, one I think I’d like and that would certainly lead me back to his novels, too. (I love Flaubert’s Parrot!) I think I’d be interested in the autobiographical element too — that family sounds messed up in a fascinating way.

  3. Wow, this sounds like a fantastic book! And great review too! I can understand how he feels. When you don’t have a religion/belief to provide comfort in the face of death it’s just you facing your extinction. As you so wonderfully point out, Science/knowledge cannot tame our terror of death. I think it requires a bit of imagination and a bit of faith. Easy to say, not so easy to do since I struggle with it from time to time and ultimately deal with it by just not thinking about it. And what a family Barnes has! His brother is a real winner.

  4. Touché at that last point! I will definitely have to read this book. I loved that quote about his older brother, even more so since my older brother was the one who introduced me to Julian Barnes’s writing. Excellent points about knowledge and emotion and the importance of a holding position.

  5. Gentle Reader – Lol! you gave me a chuckle there. Oh I did meet Julian Barnes a second time at a reading in London, but it was a disaster. He’s very shy, I was starstruck and we could think of nothing to say to one another! If you get hold of this book, I would love to know what you think of it, particularly if you feel the same way Barnes does. I’m scared of death, but it seems that on a day to day basis, I’m more scared of what living sometimes entails! Emily – LOL! You would appreciate Barnes’ description of his family relationships – he doesn’t always say much but you never get the wrong impression of how he feels. Dorothy – oh I was SO fascinated by the family. But most of all I really loved his voice in this book; it’s so clever and so funny and so wise. It’s all split into small segments and I found myself thinking, just one more, just the next one… Stefanie – the relationship between the brothers is a hoot. I found Barnes to be very interesting on this question of the absence of God and reading it, I was struck by how isolated we can feel in relation to the enormity of death without some imaginative support. You’re so right, though, so easy to say, so hard to solve. It made me keep testing how I felt about it, and what I thought I would do, and after my recent health problems, it struck me that a brush with mortality only makes you feel dispirited and miserable, so it’s the one time in my entire life that I think I’m on the side of denial! Pete – oh I can see that you would get a lot out of this book, and in itself it makes a fascinating case study of family relations in the total absence of empathy. If you like Julian Barnes in any case, I certainly urge you to read it – and then let me know what you think!

  6. I don’t think there’s much solace looking death in the eye from an intellectual point of view. This sounds like a fascinating book, but I think I’d be a little afraid to read it. Does he find an answer? I have not yet read him, but I absolutely must (especially if you admire him enough to have wanted to do your PhD on his work–did you by the way?). His family sounds like a crack up though–what a mother. If she whips out the comments like that it’s no wonder he is an award winning author!

  7. I was only thinking about your love of Barnes the other day and thinking that I should check out those books of his that I haven’t read and allow myself the time to re-visit those I already love, especially ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’. I heard parts of this read on Radio 4 and I’m not certain that I’m ready for it yet. My mother’s death is still too close. But I am going to go and look out the others I’ve missed.

  8. I have so little experience with Barnes and I’m certain I am missing a voice I would really enjoy. I think I will start with his novels – two of which I already have on the shelf, I just need to squeeze into the schedule. But I’m keeping note of this memoir because it sounds delightful.

  9. Danielle – he doesn’t really come to an answer, but he gives the sense of feeling somewhat assuaged simply from having written it all down. I must say I was a little afraid to read this too, after my summer, but it’s actually very easy to read because he approaches the topic with a lot of intellect. The anecdotes about the family are just so entertaining. His brother is very funny too, and the way he describes them all is fascinating. Alas, I didn’t do a PhD on his work because I stayed with French, but I would love to write on him academically one day, nevertheless! I would love to know what you think of him – but start with Flaubert’s Parrot or Talking It Over. Ann – yes, not the book for you, perhaps, if you are still tender, and as you so rightly say there is a huge body of wonderful novels out there. I’m thinking of rereading Flaubert’s Parrot myself! Verbivore – oh you would like him, I’m sure, and particularly the pyrotechnical displays of language in books like Flaubert’s Parrot and The History of the World in 10 and a Half Chapters. I’d love to know what you think of him.

  10. As an eldest brother, I am fascinated when one of my younger brothers lets slip some hint of how I and my attitudes have affected them. That is one huge reason to track down this book. The other is that it seems to be full of wonderfully quotable bits. I am very much the same as the person who said to Oscar Wilde, “I wish I had said that.”

    (Such a treat to unexpectedly have the time to drop in again – I miss this salon)

  11. I read about this book before and before my sister was diagnosed with lung cancer. I would like to read it sometime, maybe now, because since my sister died I have been thinking a lot about death. She was scared of dying and she fought against it so hard. But she died with a smile on her face and I can’t help wondering what made her smile.

  12. Archie – it’s lovely to have you here, too. I miss your comments when you’re away! I think you would appreciate the Barnes for its wit and its intriging information, not to mention the big brother angle. If you manage to track down a copy, do promise you’ll let me know what you think. Booksplease – oh I am so terribly sorry about your sister, but there is something very beautiful in the knowledge that she had a smile on her face. If anyone can write well about the hardest topic of them all, it’s Julian Barnes. I rather think he would do well to hear about your sister, too.

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