Author of AGAINST A DARKENING SKY, THE EMPTY ROOM, OUR DAILY BREAD, and others. Find out more at www.LaurenBDavis.com. I read as if my sanity depended upon it.. . . oh, wait, it does! Snort.
This is Julian Barnes' extended essay on mortality and his terror of death. His most recent novel, "The Sense of An Ending" deals fictionally with the same subject, and I feel the novel was more successful, or at least less depressing. Contrary to the hopeful-sounding title, Barnes apparently finds a great deal of which to be afraid, and the fear becomes, for this reader at least, contagious.
Barnes is a man of undisputed intellect, as well as great wit. He says he was an atheist at twenty and at the writing of this book, at sixty in 2008, an agnostic. I'm not sure I buy that. There is little in this memoir to indicate he allows even the possibility of God's existence, in any form whatsoever -- not even the most cosmological. He writes of his own parents -- the father he barely knew, the mother he disliked -- and their deaths. He talks of his philosopher brother, who remarked that Barnes' statement -- "I don't believe in God, but I miss Him" -- is 'soppy.' He also discusses a number of writers, many of them French, and various theologians, composers and scientists and they way they approached death. Jules Renard, who said, "It is when faced with death that we turn most bookish" is a particular favorite.
He also talks a lot about memory and how plastic and unreliable it is. So unreliable as to be interchangeable with imagination, in fact. It appears Barnes is saying that this unreliability makes the point that if life's meaning is to be found when viewed as a narrative, it is an invalid point.
The book is often very funny. Consider this discussion of Montaigne' theory that the death of youth, "which often takes place unnoticed, is the harder death; what we habitually refer to as 'death' is no more than the death of old age (forty or so in his time, seventy or more in ours). The leap from the attenuated survival of senescence into nonexistence is much easier than the sly transition from heedless youth to crabbed and regretful age":
"But Montaigne is a compendious writer, and if this argument fails to convince, he has many others. For instance: if you have lived well, used life to the full, then you will be happy to let it go; whereas if you have misused life and found it miserable, then you will not regret it's passing. (A proposition which seems to me entirely reversible: those in the first category might want their happy lives to continue indefinitely, those in the second might hope for a change of luck.) Or: if you've truly lived for a single day, in the fullest sense, then you've seen everything. (No!) Well, then, if you've lived like that for a whole year, you've seen everything. (Still no.) Anyway, you should make room on earth for others, just as others have made room for you. (Yes, but I didn't ask them to.) And why complain of being taken, when all are taken? Think of how many others will die on the same day as you. (True, and some of them will be as pissed off as I am about it.) Further, and finally, what exactly are you asking for when you complain against death? Do you want an immortality spent on this earth, given the terms and conditions currently applicable? (I see the argument, but how about a bit of immortality? Half? OK, I'll settle for a quarter.)
Barnes is having a good deal of fun here, and I'm pleased to go along with him.
But ultimately, Barnes falls into a despair trap. All arguments feel as if posed from a vantage point of already-existing existential angst that has blocked him from any possibility of peace. Quite late on in the work he discusses the idea that God -- if He exists -- is the ultimate ironist. "The game thought up by God the ironist is this: to plant immortal longings in an undeserving creature and then observe the consequences. To watch these humans, freighted with consciousness and intelligence, rushing around like frantic rats. To see how one group of them instructs everyone else that their door (which perhaps they can't even open) is the only correct one, and then perhaps starts killing everyone who puts money on a different door. Wouldn't that be fun?"
Uh, no, it wouldn't be. But perhaps Barnes is the ironist here -- that title again. All his arguments seem to point to it being ironic. He talks a good deal (too much) about how intensely he disliked his mother. Fine, and I sympathize, believe me, but what does this have to do with facing one's own death? He does make the point that if eternity involved having to see her again, he'd rather not. He also discusses how a writer must come to terms with one day having a 'last reader', after which one's work will effectively cease to exist, just as every grave must one day have its last visitor. At which point I thought I might just take myself off to the river with stones in my pockets.
While Barnes is excellent at wittily pointing out all the pointlessness of life and death, he spends no time at all on any possibility of peace at the end. I could not help but feel he is trapped behind a wall of death-terror, massaging it over and over again, desperately wishing it were otherwise, but unable to see beyond the terror because it's the only thing on which he focuses.
I think, in the end, I was challenged by the book and by the conversation I felt I had with Barnes (and a damn good conversationalist he is, even if a gloomy one). My sense of my own mortality is not the same as his, but perhaps that only means I should write my own book on the subject. God knows, I felt I could use an opposing view after reading this.
I will end this review with a quote from Ford Madox Ford (which is in the book), concerning reviews and critiques: "It is an easy job to say that an elephant, however good, is not a good warthog; for most criticism comes to that." Indeed.