Barnes, Julian: Nothing to be Frightened of

Edinburgh, August, Festival crowds going everywhere, trams going nowhere… but the hottest tickets in town were for the Monthly Book Group’s annual discussion by the seaside. And – yes! – your indefatigable correspondent is back from the dead for a guest re-appearance.

Some things had changed from my last visit 6 months ago. Most members looked rather older, though two were youthfully displaying Kindles.… And some things had not changed, as two compared their fine Pinot Noirs while disdaining a swallae of your correspondent’s cheapissimo red, “Selected by Tesco”….

The youthful proposer had found Barnes’ book in Oxfam (better not tell the author) and bought it as he had good memories of “Arthur and George”. He liked it very much, partly because he found he had so much in common with our Julian. This started with being brought up initially in Leicester, having as parents a dominant mother and quiet father, and going on to study French literature. Like Barnes he was concerned by not having proper knowledge of his parents’ lives, he feared flying, and was troubled by memory becoming more unreliable as time passed. There was even in his family a photo of a female relation with the face scratched out, similar to the mystery Barnes writes about (but in this case the solution was known: the lady disliked the photo and had scratched it out herself, which was unfortunate as no other photo of her survived). A veritable Julian Barnes doppelganger.

Therefore he could relate very easily to the book – but could others? It was difficult to define the genre of the book – it was not a novel, a history or even an essay. It was a rambling on the theme of mortality. Barnes knew it rambled, and admitted it. Barnes’ brother, the philosopher, was the logical thinker; Julian by contrast was not a sequential writer and moved from anecdote to anecdote, pulling in much that seemed irrelevant. There was a sort of sequence – looking at all the things that might prove a consolation to the fact of death. And he failed to find any that helped.

There was a large spread of opinion about the book. One member (who indeed had first introduced the Book Group to Barnes) did not attend, reporting that he found the book both difficult and boring, and had not finished it.

At the opposite end of the spectrum was one who very much enjoyed it, and who also found he had a large amount in common with Barnes, especially through having a similar family background. (Another Julian Barnes doppelganger, indeed – a trippelganger, one might say?) He had been sufficiently enthused to start reading the book for a second time, make copious notes, and hunt down on the internet paintings eulogised by Barnes.

But the majority opinion was that of admiration – some grudging, some less so – for the cleverness of the book, mingled with substantial reservations about it. More specifically, there was admiration for the precision and concision of his language, in tandem with a chatty style. We liked the wealth of anecdotes and the breadth of ideas (from the latest scientific thinking about the nature of the brain, to quirky facts such as that your nails do not actually continue to grow after death). We liked the nimbleness of his mind, and the range of literary, artistic, and biographical reference. Some found the book funny (as in the anecdote of the man who hailed a passing hearse asking if it were free), while others found more irony, some of it rather bitter, than laugh-out-loud humour.

One major reservation for many was the length of the book, padded out with irrelevant anecdotes and repetition. “If a student gave me this,” one opined in professorial tones, “I’d tell him to cut the length by at least half ”. Related to this was the chapterless lack of structure and proper conclusion. “If you cut the book up and threw it on the floor, you couldn’t put it back in order. Nor indeed would it matter what order you read it in.” (At this point the speaker fessed up to having not bothered to read forty pages, but doubted if he had missed anything). “Barnes records” observed another, coldly putting the boot in, “that Oxford told him he did not have the right kind of mind to study philosophy. They were right. There’s enough that’s good in this to encourage me to read another Barnes’ novel, but not another rambling quasi-philosophical book like this. ”

“But”, chimed in the doppelgangers, “a sort of structure begins to emerge if you read it for the second time…”.

“And” suggested a doppelganger ally “if Barnes were here” (what did he mean? There were already two of them here) “he would say that one of his central points is that life does not follow the shapely narrative of a novel – it is random and rambling, and that’s why he is writing the book in the same way…” “???!!!” “Well, ok, maybe that is sophistry…

“So another reason is that he felt death is a big subject requiring a big book”… “yes, you often get the feeling he’s sitting at his desk wondering what on earth to write about today”… “but other writers have managed to sum up life and death in a sentence!”

Another reservation was that, in the process of resolutely knocking down every possible means of consoling himself about death, you felt that Barnes did not actually value anything in his godless world. He contrived to sound unenthusiastic about life in general, his interest in football (oh well, Leicester were doing badly then), about novel-writing, about relationships, about beauty, about the natural world, and even about his daily bottle of wine ( “sure you won’t try this cheapissimo red?” I asked a doppelganger. No, oh well…). Not for him the spiritual dimension that many still find in a godless world. It was not that we found the book depressing; it was that Barnes seemed depressed. And his endless, abstract cleverness served finally to muffle the real horror of death.

The oddest thing about the book, the most energetic, and the one that had attracted most public attention, was the autobiographical material included about his family. It had an emotional charge which suggested unresolved conflicts. You could admire the novelist’s skill he brought to the descriptions of his family, and to imagining what might be the story of his grandfather’s war. You could also admire his honesty in examining and recording his own feelings. But – really – did he have to write so bitterly about his mother? Did he need to unburden himself in this way? What was the relevance to a book about death? And why so much jocularly jealous material about his brother? It was surely significant that those of the Group most attracted to the book were those who could relate most easily to the autobiographical material.

And where was the novelist’s capacity for empathy when he thought about his family? He seemed to lack empathy at other points too – for example in the sneering account of the approach to death of the “A-type” American businessman…. Even the doppelgangers found him arrogant in referring to famous French writers as his “non-blood relations”. He excoriated his mother for a solipsistic view of the world, and then devoted reams to his own solipsistic worries about when readers would finally stop reading his books.

The discussion then moved from the book to the issues raised by it, though without provoking self-revelation on the Barnesian scale. All maintained they had no fear of death but perhaps did have of dying (but were they being honest?). First intimations of mortality (the “reveil mortel” of the book) were recorded. We noted the difference that having children made (Barnes did not have them) as fear of your death was replaced by fear that your children would pre-decease you. And perhaps the way in which people slowly lost their faculties and interests in their medically-supported old age, until their identity was the last thing they could let go of, offered a sort of consolation, a way of coming to terms with death.

So who had suffered from what Barnes records as the Stendhal Syndrome (breathlessness, overwhelmed by the power of art)? Several: overwhelmed by Verdi’s Requiem, by Michelangelo’s David, by the Iguazo Falls, ………and indeed, your indefatigable correspondent ventured, by Rooney’s overhead kick to defeat City …

(Why were they all glaring? Had the philosopher Shankly not observed that football was not a matter of life and death, but more important than that?)

The ever more youthful proposer (had he been reading Dorian Gray again?) had shifted from Oxfam to Kindle to source Barnes’ new novel “The Sense of an Ending”. He reported that, contrary to some reports, it was only loosely related to the current work – through exploring the theme that memory was identity. This was a strand of thought we had liked in the current book.

So now we had three Kindlers in the room. One had deployed the Kindle to particularly good effect in producing telling quotations at the key moment while others were struggling with folded-down corners of pages. “Ah, yes” said the Kindler “this is the ‘my clippings’ feature’.”

“So do they continue to grow after your death?”

Finally, the young proposer, in a first for this or surely any other Book Group, asked that his last words should be recorded now for posterity. This was just in case they were somehow missed on his deathbed. (Apparently the words are based on something a young lady had once said to him).

Reader, they are:

“BETTER THAN THE DENTIST”