on 8 October 2009
Julian Barnes is a great author and an interesting thinker, and his subject here is perhaps the biggest of all subjects - mortality: specifically, the deaths of one's parents, one's own decline and fall, the meaning of life. Important news, then, and from an important source. I very much looked forward to watching his perspective form, and perhaps finding comfort and wisdom, or even just a few laughs, in his elegant prose.
Unfortunately the book didn't quite live up to its promise - for me, anyway. This is a very literary book - a self-consciously literary book in which every thought, feeling, experience, is dutifully backed up by a strangely numb Allusion To Literature. Instead of calling on his vast literary experience to enliven or illustrate the deadening weight of the feelings we all experience when our parents die, I felt Barnes was actually using literature as a hiding place from the feelings he meant to engage with. The net effect is an apparent callousness - as if one's dad's death is just an excellent opportunity for another starred First. I'm sure that is not what he intended, and God knows we all need a place to hide ... The book was just a little smaller in scope than I'd hoped.
Still read it, though. He writes like an angel.
on 4 October 2011
I enjoyed the book, but I've logged on purely to comment on the Kindle edition, which is littered with typos. The numeral 1 is often substituted for the capital letter I, r often appears instead of t, and there are numerous other errors scattered throughout. I can only assume the text was scanned in from a printed version, and nobody bothered to check the text properly afterwards. I expect better.
The Grim Reaper: is he all bad? Having read this book it looks as though Julian Barnes certainly thinks so; some people are afraid of dying and some people are afraid of the blank eternal nothingness of death itself. I'd hold my hand up to the former - just the mere thought of hospital beds and pained-looks from relatives, not to mention all the weeping and wailing, makes me shiver with horror, but eternal nothingness? No, I can't say I have a problem with that. Barnes sees things from the opposite view-point. Dying is fine, it's just the fact that it results in death which causes him problems.
Barnes is always a joy to read. He writes with a dry elegance and he invariably has interesting things to say. Here, amidst all the staring into the abyss, he writes with humour - and perhaps more warmth than he might care to admit - about his parents and grandparents: their lives and loves, and of course their final release from earthly bonds. He also writes with a fabulous gallows humour about funerals - the fat worm that positively seems to strut in the soil by the open grave - and the way in which we dream about dying (quietly, with dignity and a witty final line) differs from the sadly more common reality (howling into the darkness). He is also good on religion, indeed the book begins with something of an atheist's lament: "I don't believe in God, but I miss Him'. Barnes's brother, a philosopher, regards this sentiment as 'soppy' and I know exactly what he means but I'm with Julian on this one. I don't believe either, but I suspect I'd feel happier if I did.
There is a great deal of gloomy graveside meditation in here but every page is touched with humour, reflection and learning. Barnes is great at wheeling out the apposite quotation or anecdote. He's also good on the nature of memory and the philosophical examnation of death ('to be a philosopher is to learn how to die'). It's not a book for everyone but, for those of us who have ever reflected upon the welcoming grave, it's a beautiful and profound meditation on final things. A book to have by your bedside as the light fades....
on 4 January 2009
Until now Julian Barnes has always been opaque - his writing has been brilliant but you never felt you knew much about the man, except that he is clearly a person of exceptional observational skill and insight. Now we have something of him, and my admiration has only grown.
This book may not be a memoir, but it is beautifully revealing. Barnes talks us through the various ways death has been, and can be, approached, and is by turns darkly hilarious and darkly terrifying - his gallows humour is about the best you'll ever read. But always, always, he is sure-footed and ferociously honest.
on 31 March 2008
I have long been a fan of Julian Barnes and purchased this new volume without reading reviews, as I now tend to do with favourite authors. I took it for granted that the writing would be excellent and it was. However, I was amazed at the feat that he has brought off here. The discourse on life and death, interwoven with autobiographical detail, passages about Jules Renard [and you don't need to know anything about him to enjoy the writing - to me he was only a name],combine to produce a stunning and thought-provoking book. It is one of the best he has written, for sheer content and style. Although death figures large, the result is never morbid. To me it is a celebration of life by one of the most literary of all writers. Where another author might have written separate chapters or disappeared down cul de sacs, Barnes has produced a masterpiece of constrained, fluid writing, integrating all the elements brilliantly.
on 11 August 2009
I'm glad I discovered Julian Barnes. His command of English and ability to summarise an idea is sublime - what most people have only as a vague soup of subconscious thoughts, he can put down on paper, to leave you lost in new trains of thought for a long time. This works well in a book that's mostly about dying, specifically Barnes' self-confessed fear of it. It's not a self-help book, and neither does it offer THE answer, or any answers at all. It actually digresses quite a lot on topics of the author's childhood, the unreliability of memory, and appreciation of art which dilutes the effect, unless you are interested in the particular topic. But every few pages or so it swells to deliver a statement where you just have to close the book and reflect on it. I personally found the general effect quite calming - perhaps because of my age, perhaps because of my own 'we'll cross that bridge when we come to it outlook on things. There is also quite a lot of humour. This book just worked for me at the time I read it - not that its intention is to calm or stoke your fear of death, such as it may be. It is food for thought, and probably worth re-reading every ten years to see how your opinions have changed. It is definitely worth reading just to enjoy the beautiful style of writing.
on 27 February 2013
Julian Barnes thinks of death every day, and it horrifies him to think that, as for every one of us, one day sooner or later will be his last. He looks at the views of various writers on death, particularly the French writer Jules Renard, and considers the worms crawling in and out of the putrifying body. He does not believe in God, but wishes he did, and God is very much a character in this book as Barnes argues with him, contradicts him, points out various unwise and unfair parts of his creation; Barnes' God is a stern, tough, grumpy old man. Well, Barnes writes well and often amusingly, but he has no concept of what God might be, no concept of the spiritual, no confidence in anything other than the standard materialist scientific view of life today. He has no emotional understanding of his characters (this coldness being the chief fault of his novels) or appreciation of anything other than logic and reason. He found his mother a talkative pain in the neck, and this may be one reason why he is locked in his narrow, urban (nature? Forget it) ultra cerebral male world.
Page 34: "This is not, by the way, `my autobiography'." The book is, however, intensely autobiographical, in a discursive rather than chronological or comprehensive way. It deals mainly, but not exclusively, with two themes that have occupied much of Julian Barnes' life: the fear of death which, despite the book's title (ah! but what if you take the word Nothing to mean Nothingness? p.99), has become an essential part of me" (p.62) and his attitude to religion: "I don't believe in God, but I miss Him." (p.1)
Julian has an elder brother Jonathan, a rather donnish philosopher, and he uses Jonathan's views as a foil to his own, for Jonathan seems genuinely not to be bothered by the prospect of death, and is philosophical not just in an academic but in a temperamental way.
And Julian discusses his memories with Jonathan who points to the unreliability of memories. (And this will be demonstrated beautifully towards the end of the book by a long and fascinating passage about a visit by Stendhal to the Church of Santa Croce). No matter: Julian's memories are recalled so vividly, so stylishly and so wittily that one can only say "si non e vero, e ben trovato" (if this francophile will pardon an Italian instead of a French expression). Besides, in another fine passage towards the end, Julian finely describes the craft of the novelist as the interplay between and the merging of memory and the imagination.
Julian draws richly on what other philosophers, composers and writers have said about death and how they have died. In the context in which this information appears, it is infinitely more rewarding than the lists Simon Critchley has provided in The Book of Dead Philosophers (see my recent review.) Julian must have made a note throughout his voluminous reading whenever the subject of death came up.
For he had always feared death, resented it, protested about it, and, in one of several incongruously vulgar expressions which mar an otherwise delicious and elegant prose, is `pissed off' about one of Montaigne's consolatory statements about it (p.42). (And I find it depressing to see this fine stylist stoop to the wholly gratuitous use of the F Word on a couple of occasions.)
He has progressed from very early atheism to agnosticism in his later years, but there is always a strong whiff of regret, a feeling that atheists and even agnostics miss something important. "God is dead, and without Him human beings can at last get up off their knees and assume their full height; and yet this height turns out to be quite dwarfish." (p.57)
There are some fascinating meditations about the response to religious art by people who no longer share the ideas that went into its creation. He wrestles, not all that originally but with his usual elegance, with age-old problems: whether we have Free Will or not; whether, and if so, how we differ from animals in this respect; of whom or what the `I' consists; what is our place in a world which is billions of years old and has billions of years to come; reflections that a good writer can expect go out of print a decade or two after his death (if not during his life-time), and even a great one will no longer be read a few centuries later: so not much of an after-life there either. And there are some delicious and, as far as I know, original extended metaphors: a particularly felicitous one is on p.191: perhaps God has set up a kind of labyrinth without exits to an after-life, just to watch us, as an experimental scientist watches rats scurrying around to find a non-existing piece of cheese behind a door that won't open.
This book wonderfully articulates what not only Julian Barnes but many other people have thought about death - though perhaps most of us have such thoughts only in the small hours of the morning when we cannot sleep, in the occasional conversations we might have with family or friends, or at times when our friends or relations have a distressing and lingering end. Julian Barnes conveys the impression - perhaps wrongly, because this is after all NOT an autobiography, but mainly musings on Death, God, and The Human Condition - that he thinks about these things obsessively all the time; and I have to say that, in the end, I found 250 pages of it just a little excessive.
'Nothing To Be Frightened Of' is an elegant hybrid of indirect autobiography and study of our relation to mortality in a post-religious age. Julian Barnes uses three generations of his own family as a sounding-board against which to test his own thoughts about death. In counterpoint, he explores two other perspectives: that of his elder brother, a retired academic philosopher; and the accumulated wisdom of a host of literati, mainly French, in matters death-related.
Like so many of us, Barnes is an atheist and a Darwinian. In this book he explores the common dilemma: how do we, relatively comfortable and long-lived products of modern medicine, deal with the scientific certainty of personal and species extinction that seems to render every human endeavour potentially meaningless?
Barnes is arguably at his best in this kind of writing; lucid, mordantly funny, self-aware, clear-sighted. His account of his parents and grandparents is both reasonably affectionate and accurate in its perception of human weakness and inadequacy. His portrait of his mother is particularly memorable. To be fair, he doesn't spare himself, either: he extends the same scrutiny to his own character, and in particular to his (unreasonable, or all too reasonable?) fears concerning the inevitability and permanence of personal extinction. The result is a mixture of English social comedy with an underlying seriousness more characteristic of the author's French influences.
Admirers of Barnes won't need a recommendation. Readers who have found his fiction unconvincing should give this a try.
This book could be subtitled 'An anthology of literary anecdotes about death', Julian Barnes recounts the thoughts of literary figures on mortality as asides, woven into his own story of the death of his parents and grandparents. I picked it up in a bookshop in Brussels. I always enjoy reading Julian Barnes when I'm abroad.
Having had quite a religious upbringing, I was quite surprised by the author's lack of familiarity with organised worship and his bafflement at spirituality. I think I enjoyed it more because I studied French at university, so I knew all about Flaubert, Montaigne and the Goncourt brothers. It raised some important questions like 'should we die in character' - can we expect to live into very old age and retain our identity? It was a thoroughly enjoyable read, even if his conclusions are a bit bleak.