Monday, 1 February 2010

Book of the Month: Nothing to be Frightened Of (Julian Barnes)

Julian Barnes’s Nothing to be Frightened Of, published by Vintage under the title ‘Biography/Literature’, is a melange of many things. In part it is a family memoir, which extends (from his mother’s side) to two generations; it overflows with entertaining anecdotes about and quotes from (mostly) eighteenth and nineteenth century French writers and philosophers (Stendhal, Renard, the Gonocourt brothers, Daudet, Montaigne, Zola, and Flaubert, to name a few), composers (Ravel, Shostakovich) and some twentieth century writers such as Somerset Maugham (who, for the most part of his adult life lived in France) and Albert Camus; there is a lot of homespun philosophy; there are erudite musings on wide ranging subjects such as memory and truth, identity, religion (Christianity) and its role, if any, in the modern life (Western European), evolutionary biology, and, towards the end, the making of a novelist (I might have missed a few). In the main, though, Nothing to be Frightened of is a festchrift of Death, and (by association) God, personified as they are in the latest offering from one of the most stylist writers writing in English today.

To Julian Barnes, the awareness of death came early, when he was 13 or 14. He uses a term, first used by Charles du Bos, friend and translator of the American novelist, Edith Wharton, to describe this moment: le reveil mortel; and (in an endearing manner that marks what in essence is a compendium of discursive, if digressive, essays) proceeds to give several translations of the phrase: ‘the wake up call to mortality’ (that does not satisfy the finicky author—sounds a bit like hotel service, he observes); Death-knowledge / Death-awareness (these terms are dismissed as sounding too Germanic); ‘the awareness of death’ (this phrase too fails to meet approval, because ‘it suggests a state rather than a particular cosmic strike’); in the end, he concludes that ‘the first (bad) translation . . . is the good one’. The phrase, in turn, serves as a springboard for a lively account of the ‘lemon table’ (lemon being the Chinese symbol of death) discussions held in the Kamp restaurant in Helsinki, in the 1920s, attended by painters, writers, industrialists, doctors and (hold your breath) lawyers; followed by an account of the 'Magny dinners', held in the late nineteenth century Paris by a loose group of eminent Parisian writers and philosophers, the two groups, though separated by time and distance, having in common the subject of thanatology for their discussions. Barnes has his own circle of friends, almost all of whom, one gets the impression, are clever, Oxbridge educated, writers and philosophers; and they put in periodic appearances, adding their chorus of opinions to Barne’s own views on death and dying, and if the God exists, and can one really, really, appreciate religious art if one is an atheist, and whether there is a real self (and if there is, where is it located in the brain), and whether man has free, really free, will, and whether after death we just cease to exist or enter into an afterlife, and so on and so forth. (These friends and colleagues are addressed with only letters such as ‘G’ and ‘R’, presumably to protect their identities). The most assertive and forceful amongst these voices is of Barnes’s elder brother, who, we are informed, is a professional philosopher. He lives in France, has pet llamas, and teaches in Geneva. At the beginning of the book the brother tells what he thinks of Barnes’s view on God (Barnes does not believe in God, but he misses him): soppy. This brother is also extremely suspicious and sceptical of the faculty of memory (presumably from a philosophical point of view) and produces examples of how the same event from the past is not infrequently remembered very differently by the people involved. Throughout the book Barnes provides compelling evidence, both personal and historical. With zeal worthy of a professional researcher, Barnes points out the discrepancies between Stendhal’s 1826 account of his stay in Florence, during which he visited a number of cathedrals, the visit culminating in him famously experiencing ‘the fierce palpitation of the heart, the wellspring of life dying up’ in the porch of Santa Croce (a syndrome which was rediscovered a century and half later by a Florentine psychiatrist, who named it after Stendhal, specifying—in allusion to the unique circumstances in which its famous original sufferer experienced the symptoms—that in order to be qualified for this exotic condition, the individual has to be exposed to art so beautiful that it literally takes one’s breath away); and the actual account of his visit (which took place in 1811), gleaned from the diaries Stendhal kept. The point is further driven home by counterpoising a banal story of Barnes’s childhood game with his brother, of which Barnes has no conscious memory; his brother tells the story, as he remembers it, in his adulthood to his daughters, who recount it back to Barnes when they themselves are adults. Of course, Barnes has to interrogate his brother about ‘what really happened’. The conclusion: the accounts of Barnes’s brother and his daughters are at variance. All of this is conveyed with a raconteur’s glee and expertise and makes very entertaining read. Nevertheless you wonder at the end of it whether there isn’t a simpler explanation: that with the passage of time people forget, especially if the index event was not of seismic importance in the first place. And, is it not possible that Stendhal was not consciously (in plain English, deliberately) embellishing the account of his visit to Florence?

Barnes, by his own (repeated) admission, is obsessed with death, rather the thoughts of death. Not a day has gone by, he says, in the last thirty plus years, when he has not thought about death. Indeed he has suddenly woken up in the early hours of the morning, engulfed by anxiety bordering on panic, and has pummelled the pillow repeatedly, wailing loudly, ‘No! No!’ He has death dreams in which he comes to a distressing and violent end. It, therefore, comes as little surprise when he begins searching around for the best way, the ideal frame of mind, to face death. He examines the position of Somerset Maugham, whom he read a lot when he was in his twenties. Maugham's advice was to face life and (by association) death in a state of humorous resignation, something which, Barnes informs us—and we can almost see the twinkle in his eyes and the slight curling of his lips—the increasingly bitter, vindictive, and cantankerous Maugham failed to put into practice as old age loomed. Next he turns to his all-time favourite—Gustav Flaubert. He finds that Flaubert’s advice—that by being equal to one’s destiny and by gazing down into the black pit at one’s feet one remains calm—is not easy to put into practice: no amount of pit-gazing can prepare you for your own coda. He painstakingly traces the last days of some or more of the nineteenth and twentieth century literary figures; and finds out that barring a few, none—from Goethe to Mary Wesley—was granted the end they wished; that very few of them died ‘in character’. Goethe, ‘one of the wisest men in the history of mankind’, lived well into eighties, ‘his faculties intact and health excellent’ before he fell ill. Goethe, who had always maintained that a concern for immortality was a preoccupation of idle minds, faced his death nobly, his friends claimed; however, the truth—as revealed by the diary entry of his doctor—was different: Goethe was ‘in the grip of terrible fear and agitation’ as the death approached. Barnes makes the inevitable discovery that wisdom, philosophy, and serenity do not stack up against the mortal terror.

Nothing to be Frightened Of is not a family chronicle as such, and Barnes is at pains to clarify that he is not in search of his parents. However, in prose that is precise, elegant, and above all dispassionate, he depicts a vivid picture of his parents and family. With clinical precision worthy of a surgeon he dissects his English middle class upbringing, and, linked to it, his parents’ marriage. This is a family that is not very good at, or does not believe in, open expressions of sentiments, and abhorrs strong emotions. They are reserved, not touchy-feely. Barnes has no conscious memory of his father ever telling him that he loved him. He informs in a matter of fact tone that he and his only sibling, the philosopher brother, have not seen each other often during their adult years. When Barnes sends his first published book (Metroland) to his parents, there is no response from them for over two weeks; and even when he phones them, neither mentions the novel. Finally, when he visits them, both of them separately tell him that they had read the novel—father, in his car, not making any eye-contact; the mother, more directly and disapproving of the ‘bombardment of filth’. She reads his second novel, too (Before She Met Me), which comes with a health-warning from its author with respect to its filth content, and reports that part of it ‘made my eyes stand out like chapel hatpegs’. Of her two sons, she says, ‘One of my sons writes books which I can read but can't understand; the other writes books which I can understand but can’t read.’ Barnes appears closer to his father, who receives considerably more sympathetic treatment than his mother, who is depicted as domineering, opinionated, and unable (or unwilling) to consider others’ viewpoints. You almost suspect Barnes disliked his mother. Both his parents lived into their eighties, and died in the hospital / residential home, suffering a succession of strokes that took away, piece by piece, parts of their selves. However, the two reacted, or adjusted, very differently to their increasing frailty and associated handicaps. While his father retreated into quiet melancholia, his mother became irate and uncooperative. His father predeceased his mother by five years. On what turns out to be the last day of his life, his wife, who has dominated him throughout the forty years of their marriage, asks him whether he knows who she is. He says slowly, ‘I think you are my wife.’ When her turn came, Barnes’s mother would appear to have faced the certainty of her death with great courage, almost nonchalance. In a very moving section of the book, Barnes describes his meeting with the treating doctor—the doctor tells him frankly about the poor prognosis—after which he returns to his mother’s room, wondering how he is going to soften the blow for her. As soon as his mother sees him, she gives him a thumbs-down sign, using her still functional arm. ‘That was the only time she tore at my heart,’ Barnes writes.

Barnes writes at the beginning of one essay—it is difficult to call these sections anything else—that this is not an autobiography; and it isn’t. But Barnes provides enough titbits which tempt one to make assumptions about the kind of man he is. At one point he provides a mock-summery of his life so far, referring to himself in the third person: ‘. . . After a slow and impecunious professional start, he achieved more success than he had expected. After a slow and precarious emotional start, he achieved as much happiness as his nature permitted.’ The picture that emerges is of a cultured, if somewhat bookish (dare I say intellectually snobbish?), man, who likes to listen to classical music; who attends concerts; who goes to cemeteries in France and Italy and visits graves of long-dead authors; who loves wine and everything French (do the two go hand in hand?); who is an inexhaustible source of information about nineteenth century French writers (Nothing to be Frightened Of is, in parts, homage to Jules Renard, the nineteenth century French writer and Barnes’s namesake; and in one of the essays, Barnes, his tongue firmly lodged in his cheek, draws parallels between his and Renard’s life); who has a wry sense of humour; who is emotionally taciturn in a way only the English can be (and, moreover, he is aware and proud of this English trait); and who is extraordinarily—unfairly—gifted with words and imagination. But then those  who have read Barnes’s fiction would have known this already. You only have to read Flaubert’s Parrot.

Barnes is a supreme stylist, and, in common with his earlier works, Nothing to be Afraid Of is adorned with soothing, lucid and nimble prose, and sparkles with dry wit. At one point, while discussing the manner of death, he remarks that If you are a writer you can die either as your personal character or your literary character; very few manage to do both ‘as Hemingway proved when he pushed two bullets into his favourite Boss shotgun (made in England, bought at Abercrombie and Fitch), then placed the barrels into his mouth.' Barnes enjoys playing with words and phrases. Here is an exemple (he is discussing the aesthetic impact of religious art on an atheist): ‘In a secular world, where we cross ourselves and genuflect before great works of art in a purely metaphorical way, we tend to believe that art tells us the truth—that’s to say, in a relativist universe, more truth than anything else—and that in turn this truth can save us—up to a point—that’s to say enlighten us, even heal us—though only in this world. How much simpler it used to be, and not just grammatically.’

At the end of this meandering meditation on Death, Afterlife, God, and religion, does Barnes find answers to his questions? Does he come to any definitive conclusion about the existence (or otherwise) of God? Does he conquer his fear of Death? I am not sure. What I am sure about is Nothing to be Afraid Of, despite its morbid subject matter, is an engaging, fascinating, invigorating, compelling, amusing, and thought-provoking read; and effervesces with Barnes's sharp wit and observations. It is a testimony to Barnes’s total mastery of the subject that despite approaching it from different angles he is never repetitive. Everyone should read it at least once before they die; there is nothing to be frightened of.