What a great book cover. Gazing ruefully out at us is the somber, skeptical face of Julian Barnes, distinguished novelist, sophisticated Francophile and death-obsessed soliloquist, his long nose lending him a remarkable resemblance to Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West. Barnes, one assumes, would not mind the comparison, for in these whirling-swirling meditations on the permanence of death he never loses his self-mocking humor or his steely sense of the absurd.
The fine photo, by Paul Stuart, of Barnes at 60—trim, barely wrinkled, a healthy head of dark hair, so what the devil is he complaining about?—makes a perfect, all-but-inevitable cover, because this is not a book on death in general, death in modern literature or death as a philosophical-theological conundrum, though all these topics come up and come in for some gripping treatment. This is about Barnes’s own near-crazed concern with his own death, the kind of violent emotional distress that makes him wake up screaming in the middle of the night.
Since there is no logical way to quiet this fear (none at least that he can accept), his thoughts about it are presented in no particular order. As with Barnes’s hero Montaigne, who maintained a calm resignation beyond anything his pupil can muster, the brooding consciousness of the author holds everything together. Still, Barnes is a storyteller, so he embeds his fragmented confessions into the framework of family history, especially the deaths of his parents, and tales of the rendezvous with mortality of a colorful crew, famous or otherwise, of writers and acquaintances, all now or soon to be dead. Finally, as it happens, Barnes’s elder brother Jonathan, the only person alive with whom he can swap and check and give semi-reliable shape to his family memories, is a professor of philosophy, an expert on Aristotle and quite a different character: across-the-board rational, not much disturbed by death and, perhaps critically, a man with children and grandchildren (Barnes has none).
Reviewers have rightly made a big deal of Barnes’s opening line: “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him,” a statement Jonathan Barnes considers “soppy.” But this is no ordinary apostate’s nostalgia, because Barnes had practically no religious upbringing. His father was an agnostic, his mother an atheist (both were teachers); and in his early teens, when vague intimations of God started to interfere with his masturbating, he shucked them off. At 20, Barnes described himself as “a happy atheist”; but with the coming of middle age he began to find hard-core atheism repellent—he also strongly preferred his gentle, unassuming father to his aggressive, self-centered mother—and he drifted into his current baffled malaise.
Like a classic Victorian unbeliever, Barnes has a keen sense of loss, of irrecoverable feelings, as he explains in a paragraph that he might have borrowed from Nietzsche’s Human, All Too Human (1886):
Missing God is focused for me by missing the underlying sense of purpose and belief when confronted by religious art. It is one of the haunting hypotheticals for the unbeliever: what would it be like “if it were true”.... Imagine hearing the Mozart “Requiem” in a great cathedral—or, for that matter, Poulenc’s “Fishermen’s Mass” in a clifftop chapel damp from salt spray—and taking the text as gospel; imagine reading Giotto’s holy strip-cartoon in the chapel at Padua as nonfiction; imagine looking on a Donatello as the actual face of the suffering Christ or the weeping Magdalene. It would—to put it mildly—add a bit of extra oomph, wouldn’t it?
The answer—and the deprivation—is obvious.
Denying that “oomph,” Barnes goes off in search of thanatological wisdom, if not comfort, from his family. Bad idea—apart from displaying a half-comic, half-pathetic English coldness to one another (Grandma views Grandpa’s corpse and announces, “Doesn’t he look awful?”; Pa’s last words to Ma are, “I think you’re my wife”). Worse yet, both parents suffered strokes and lived on as broken bits of themselves before finally expiring, he first, she five years later.
Faute de mieux, Barnes can, like Montaigne, garner the wisdom of (mostly modern) sages or, like a godless T. S. Eliot, shore various fragments against his ruins: sardonic anecdotes—e.g., about cryogenically preserved cadavers defrosting—and, above all, acidly realistic comments on dying, death, eternity and so on. It takes real talent to do this sort of thing well, and Barnes has it. He orchestrates a rich, often dissonant chorus of people: Sir Thomas Browne, Stendhal, Flaubert, the Goncourt Brothers, Jules (a partial namesake) Renard, Somerset Maugham, Philip Larkin, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, Sherwin Nuland and many of his friends, each indicated by a single initial. It’s a brilliant, bitter feast.
Barnes also en-gages not just with writers, but with philosophers as well. Here he tends to concede the match early on. He will admit, for example, that old humanistic staples like freedom of the will or the coherent individual character look a little dubious in the light of modern empiricism, neo-Darwinian materialism and so forth. But then he will proceed to smuggle them back into his narrative métier, because he cannot do without them.
Similarly, Barnes will spin out various alternative scenarios to the stark either/or of death as complete extinction versus traditional pictures of the afterlife. All right, he speculates, so there is no life after death now, but maybe there will be much, much later. He enjoys imagining the dismay of the “resurrected atheist,” who discovers he has gotten it all wrong. Purely as a plot line, any chronicle of the human race that begins with a random bubble in the primordial soup and ends in a total, terminal pffft is not simply grim and depressing; it’s an aesthetic catastrophe. Left to his own devices, Barnes would never have written that sort of script.
Unfortunately, such seems to be the text he is faced with; so what can he do about it, or about the fear that has him by the throat and won’t let go? Not bloody much. (Barnes likes to indulge in bursts of emphatic profanity.) He can describe his wretched condition with unrelenting honesty, clarity and wit. He can laugh at absolutely everything, especially himself and his fumbling efforts to figure it all out. Like Hamlet, he does a sensational graveyard scene. On the edge of the tomb, eloquence may not be much; but it is better than nothing.