There was a brief period in my youth when I practised yoga and acquainted myself with occult writers. One thought has stayed with me: these writers all warn against the “negative aura” emanating from certain people, an aura that drains the unwary of psychic vitality. Reading Julian Barnes’ latest work caused just such an experience; I had to wrestle with my thoughts in order to remain buoyant after reading it. I am sure the author had no such malign intent; a well-established member of the London literary scene with a string of applauded novels to his name (he has been three times shortlisted for the Man Booker prize) he is merely offering the reader an extended series of observations on death. These are the urbane conclusions of a cultured and well-stocked mind, responsive to music and art as well as to literature. So why did they leave me (literally) cold?
Perhaps because Barnes is very wrapped up in himself. John Ruskin once remarked that “a man wrapped up in himself makes a very small parcel”; navel-gazing does not thrill. Barnes’s musings are very thin gruel, related in a tone of low-key irony which is careful to avoid displays of emotion. Part of the book concerns his parents, their deaths, his childhood memories and his relationship with his brother, Jonathan, a philosopher (“I see my brother infrequently”). It is, in a way, a disguised autobiography, although the author insists on page 34 that this is not the case. Writing a straightforward autobiography, in which we ponder, as we all must, the influences that make us who we are, is not what a clever, postmodern writer does. It is too simple, like displaying feelings. What matters is to be detached from the material at hand (oneself) and to force the reader -– Barnes addresses us directly several times -– into a worldly and arid complicity.
It does not help that he brushes 2,000 years of Christianity to one side as an adolescent, without a moment’s thought: “You come into the world, look around, make certain deductions, free yourself from the old bullshit, learn, think, observe, conclude. You believe in your own powers and autonomy; you become your own achievement.” The “old bullshit” is traditional faith, something a writer heavily influenced by French post-Enlightenment authors cannot possibly take seriously -– though Barnes admits to “missing” the God he does not believe in. His mother thought religious belief “mumbo-jumbo”; his father was a closet agnostic. His description of their deaths is dispiriting, what one would expect of a “21st century, neo-Darwinian materialist”, as he describes himself. They are merely bundles of DNA, as we all are: what is the point of it all?
Yet Barnes yearns for significance, to be remembered, to make an impression. If he were a better writer he could invent a fiction of tragic alienation, as Camus does so brilliantly in L’Etranger, with its hypnotic opening lines: “My mother died today. Or was it yesterday?” But all we get in these pages is his dislike of his dominating mother -– “Wanting to see her dead came more, I admit, from writerly curiosity than filial feeling” -– his inability to express his affection for his father, his fraternal rivalry with his brother, who he suspects is cleverer than he is, and of course his dread of death.
His title, with its soothing suggestion of a nanny calming an overwrought child, is the opposite of the book’s contents. For Barnes, there is everything to be frightened of: possibly a modern death in hospital in the middle of the night (like his father), with all the attendant indignities (Velcro slippers in a bin bag); the anxiety of being forgotten; the fear of extinction.
Although “Of course Dawkins is right in his argument” he can provide Barnes with no consolation at this awful prospect. Christianity is simply “a beautiful lie” which, at some stage in the future, will join the long list of dead religions. Anxious to disassociate himself from his boring and bourgeois ancestry, a line of petty, unbelieving schoolmasters who have ended up in an ugly bungalow, the author claims his true bloodline is artists, writers and musicians. We all claim a certain kinship with the mighty dead whose works have affected us, yet the author who seems to have most influenced Barnes is the sceptical and ironical 19th century French novelist, Jules Renard, whose Journal is often quoted with approval in these pages. Renard wrote elsewhere such lines as, “I find when I do not think of myself I do not think at all”, “Dying serves no purpose so die now” and “Look for the ridiculous in everything and you will find it”, which suggest he is the author’s true spiritual master. Barnes even made a pilgrimage to his grave.
I would like to guide Barnes towards a less restrictive diet but I fear it is too late. Entropy stalks him. It is not his subject that enervates, for it is the task of poets to sing of love and death. After all, C.S. Lewis writes in a similar genre in his short series of reflections, A Grief Observed. This is a poignant and passionate lament for the loss of his beloved wife which will resonate with anyone who has had a similar experience. In contrast, Barnes shuffles through his fears -– and the philosophical futility of such fears — like a deckchair attendant on the Titanic.
Francis Phillips writes from Bucks, in the UK.