- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 2, 2008


Knopf, $24.95, 244 pages


In 2004, when the fine British writer, Julian Barnes, was 58, he published a collection of short stories, “The Lemon Table,” dealing “with the less serene aspects of old age.” His latest offering, a piece of nonfiction (more or less), is also somber as well as amusingly irreverent concerning what waits at the end of the tunnel. Both works deal with the consequences of loss of belief in the “old-fashioned, God-arranged death survival.”

Mr. Barnes begins “Nothing to Be Frightened Of” by saying, “I don’t believe in God but I miss him.” His brother, a philosophy professor, called these words “soppy;” but after further discussions with his brother, Mr. Barnes concludes that “it will take more than logic and rational argument to conquer the [new, modern] fear of death.”

This work is partly a memoir, presenting in some detail the opinions, lives, dilapidations and beleaguered last moments of his parents and two of his grandparents, a set of nonreligious schoolteachers. Mr. Barnes admits that he isn’t giving us photographs of them … and even worries that he may have exaggerated foibles and indignities for comic relief in the treatment of a dark subject, though he hopes not. In any case, he knows that, like his admired compatriot in letters, the modernist-pioneer, Jules Renard, he is using his relatives for his own purposes … and none too gently.

Mr. Barnes also considers the lives and works of many writers and other artists. Some die early; some, late; some, quickly; some, slowly. Their sobering examples don’t help him to decide which timing to hope for. As is the case with the bloodrelatives, some of these artists are repeatedly returned to and meditated upon, as if they were motifs in a musical composition, which, in a way, they are.

Commenting on the ruminative and digressive nature of his writing here, Mr. Barnes says, “I imagine my brother’s mental life proceeding in a sequence of discrete and interconnected thoughts, whereas mine lollops [lurches] from anecdote to anecdote.” Flaubert is quoted as saying that “contradiction is the thing that keeps sanity in place.”

Philosophers are wont to brandish their competence in disposing of problems. Artists, on the other hand, tend to dwell on the difficulty of doing so, on the assumptions that you can’t solve a problem unless you really know what it is … and that wisdom “consists partly in not pretending any more.” This artistic negative way is illustrated by the advice, quoted here, from a musician on performing any dark, late chamber-work by Beethoven or Shostakovich: “Play it so that the flies drop in mid-air.”

Perhaps the subject of subjects, here, is the urgent need - absent the Christian scheme of things - for a sense of direction: Of having a destination. Does Mr. Barnes, here, show the way “forward?” There is a good deal of discussion - especially in the later pages - of literary form … and form in writing does imply direction. A part of a work fits just so long as its appearance and placement serve an authorial end in view … or perhaps better, an end that is coming into view.

We can allow for some wandering if the work takes the form of a search. Mr. Barnes thinks that “we are all amateurs in and of our own lives,” for the pursuits of which - after all - there can be no rehearsal since they mainly bring surprises: “Expect one thing and you will likely get another.” A literary artist, he says, is a professional beginner. A true quest occasions changes of mind-and maybe of self as well. Art begins at the place of half-knowledge and unresolved contradictions: the place of finding “what you can’t find out and where that leaves you.” Living in a world that is not sufficiently made for one, the literary artist completes it with suppositions and even “misrememberings.”

Both science and biography show that our hold on the past is shaky. A dear friend of Mr. Barnes, poised at the confused end of her life, says to him, in the genteel voice that he had loved,”I do think that you will be remembered as one of the worst criminals in history.” Mr. Barnes himself, his brother and the latter’s two daughters can’t resolve their quarrel as to the true facts behind a story that his brother has told of their childhood. This nonending suggests that there is a crucial distinction between truth and meaning - between, that is, what really happened and an invented or misremembered event that is preferable because it has more meaning.

As illustrated here, the artist keeps negotiating or tacking between bare (as in, starkly exposed) facts and human reconstructions of them. Meaning may not be the truth about the facts but the truth about us and our condition. Mr. Barnes says that one of the main attractions of the Christian scheme of things is that it satisfied “our longing desire and need for judgment”; “we long for the comfort, and the truth, of being fully seen. That would make for a good ending, wouldn’t it?”

If we are not to be judged by God, can we ordinary half-blind mortals at least see something of ourselves and each other? Mr. Barnes supplies evidence that we can. One such confirmation comes from a diary notation by the writer, Edmund Wilson, after the death of his second wife: “It doesn’t matter that Bunny Wilson was a cold fishy leprous person,” as his wife had called him. “It only matters that Wilson was telling the truth, and that the authentic voice of remorse is sounded in those [written] words: ‘After she was dead, I loved her.’” The artist supplies what was lacking in the man and the event. Perhaps an author doesn’t so much judge his qualities as bring them into being, in that “the self must be strengthened and defined in order to produce the work.”

Mr. Barnes provides “only” a few somewhat positive bits and pieces like these. It would seem that with the fading of belief in the superhuman and the supernatural, “our ambitions have become more puny.” But the whole momentum of his meandering and conflicted thought-flow pushes past these discouraged words and on to affirm that the best modern ambitions - ends, aims - aren’t so much lowered as promisingly different. Like his model, the writer, Jules Renard, Mr. Barnes is a “pointillist,” one who “paints” in a swarm of dots. In Mr. Barnes’ case, they are fleeting fragments of insight rising from within this and that particular person’s experience, then to be caught in flight by the quick-eyed author and rearranged. These isolated flecks don’t dissolve altogether into an unqualified wholeness. Nevertheless, from where they have been designedly dropped, they interact in telling ways.

Robert Ganz is a professor of English at George Washington University. His e-mail address is [email protected] link.net

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