Thursday, 18 February 2010
I have never done this before, primarily because, once I pick up a novel, I prefer to read it till the end without interruption so that the plot and the characters in the novel stay with me. Again, it is not as though I finish a novel in one sitting—the only novel I have finished in this fashion, in recent times, is Sandor Marai’s Esther’s Inheritance, and, at less than 150 pages, it is more like a novella—; it usually takes me a week to finish a novel, which I do in several sittings. But, while I am reading it, there is no other novel distracting me. Some friends of mine can read two, even three, books at a time. I could never do that—there would be too much confusion in my mind—related to characters and plot—or so I have always thought. The confusion would be even more if the two novels have characters that have the same names. For example, one novel may have a character called George, who is a realtor, while the other novel may also have a George who is a Russian spy, and, to make matters more complicated (for me), may be masquerading as a realtor in the same country, even the same neighbourhood, as the George of the first novel; and the realtor George may have a wife called Cathryn who is an art critic, while the other George, the false realtor, may have a girlfriend called Kathryn who runs an art gallery. It will all get terribly confusing. Also, what if one novel is more absorbing than the other? You might say that that is easy: don’t read the boring novel and carry on reading the other one. But I couldn’t do it. Once I start reading a novel I have to read it till the end, even if reading it is about as enjoyable as watching a BBC 3 documentary on the sex lives of the Chihuahuas presented by a chap with a beard. I can’t explain why I do this; it probably cannot be explained rationally; may be it goes back to my impoverished childhood where reading books was an admission of being gay (I once listened to a talk given by the 2008 Pulitzer winner, Junot Diaz when he recounted how his father, a first generation migrant from Dominican Republic, got seriously worried that his son was gay when Diaz told him of his ambition to become a writer). And we were expected not to waste anything on plate. Don’t ask me what is the connection between food and reading—haven’t I accepted already that I can’t explain it rationally? So intense is my fear of not being able to or wanting to finish a novel that I don’t think I will ever read Gravity’s Rainbow or Finnegans Wake or Ulysses. I had a lucky escape with Don De Lillo’s Underworld. It took me almost two months to finish it and left me feeling severely exhausted and underwhelmed. I had to read Jeffrey Archer to restore my health.
It is therefore a novelty for me to be doing what I am doing at present: reading two books at the same time. One is Julie & Julia by Julie Powell, which is a kind of memoir, and the other is Tongue Set Free, the first of Elias Canetti’s three-volume autobiography.
The two books, both non-fiction works, couldn’t be more different from each other. Powell’s book describes a year in her life in 21st century New York when she decideed to cook each of the 500 plus recipes from a cooker book of someone called Julia Child, who was America’s Delia Smith in the 1960s, and chronicle her endeavours on a blog, when—the first years of the last decade—blogging about food (perhaps blogging itself) was novelty. The blog became popular, and later Julie Powell wrote the aforementioned book, which, I believe, first came out in America five years ago, and was made into a film (I have not watched it). I think the book was either issued for the first time or reissued in the UK when the film came out. It is an easy enough read.
Tongue Set Free is an account of the 1981 Nobel Prize winner Elias Canetti’s European childhood in different countries. It is an extraordinary book and I am thoroughly enjoying it. Last year I read Auto da Fe, the only full length novel Canetti wrote. I thought it was one of the best novels I have ever read. I had to buy the three volumes of his autobiography, which is considered to be Canetti’s masterpiece. The book, originally written in German, is beautifully translated. Indeed, bizarre as it may seem, I am finding Tongue Set Free, a translated work—and from German too—easier to read than Julie & Julia , which is written in English. Even Auto da Fe was superbly translated. I think it is linked to the fact that Canetti, while he chose to write in German, a language he did not learn until he was almost nine, was fluent in English which he learnt when he was six. He personally supervised the translation of Auto da Fe, and may well have done the same with his autobiography. It is an utterly absorbing account of Canetti’s very intense relationship with his mother. And reading it as I am, fairly soon after Auto da Fe (which is still fresh in my mind), it also gives an insight into the influences that not only went on to shape Canetti’s character (by his own acknowledgement) but also shaped the development of some of the characters in Auto da Fe.
I said I am reading the two books simultaneously. Which is partly correct. I started reading Tongue Set Free at the beginning of the week and read the first chapter (which begins with an extraordinary image). Then, in the local library, I spotted Julie & Julia and began reading it. I thought it was very well written and entertaining, so I borrowed it and read it again in the evening. The next day I picked up Tongue Set Free, and am unable to return to Julie & Julia, of which I have read hundred odd pages. I think I shall finish Tongue Set Free in the next couple of days and then return to Julie & Julia. Cooking French cuisine may be difficult (or tedious or both), but reading about it isn’t.
Monday, 1 February 2010
Although written as an adult novel, The Catcher in the Rye has found favour amongst generations of angst-ridden teenagers, and its protagonist is considered to be emblematic of a disillusioned and rebellious teenager. I first read The Catcher in the Rye in my late teens. It was given to me by my elder brother. He said that it was a cult book which I must read. Until then I had heard neither of the book nor its author. I cannot say that the first person narrative of the novel’s 17 year old protagonist, Holden Caulfield—there has been much speculation about the origin of his name; according to an article posted on Wikipedia, the first name came from Salinger’s childhood friend, Holden Bowler, while the last name is linked to the rye-catcher metaphor—apparently caul is a membrane that covers the newborn babies, and the protagonist has this God like fantasy of being a saviour of children playing in a field of rye, hence the name ‘Caulfield’—; however, the name may have more prosaic provenance than the one dreamed by some; Salinger, in one of the rare interviews he gave, said that the name, which he had thought of years before the novel was published, was derived from the names of two Hollywood actors: William Holden and Joan Caulfield—describing, from the room of a mental asylum to which he is admitted, the three days following his expulsion from a private school to which his wealthy parents have sent him, during which period he drifts along aimlessly, feeling increasingly lonesome and isolated, was something with which I instantly identified, probably because coming as I did from a very different background from that of Caulfield, I simply could not imagine myself doing any of what he does. I could not empathize. That said I absolutely loved the narrative style. Starting with its celebrated opening ('If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap.'), there is a kind of put on air of irreverence throughout the novel, which fails to camouflage, indeed throws into sharp relief, the fact that underneath the patina of machismo, this is a seriously screwed up, insecure and lonely kid. I could partly identify with that feeling. In those days I had issues such as self-confidence (lack of) and self-esteem (not high), although I was not, at least did not consider myself (and nor did, insofar as I was aware, anyone else) to be screwed up. I tried to conceal these feelings of inadequacy by an outward nonchalance and sarcasm towards things which I had convinced myself I did not care for, when the truth was I knew I was not going to get those things, and it was convenient affect indifference, a strategy that went some way towards protecting my self-esteem. I have not read The Catcher in the Rye for well over two decades. From time to time I think about re-reading it, but has not got round to actually do it, probably because, with advancing years, different kinds of cynicism and insecurities have set in, and I think I would find the novel less captivating if I read it again. (Also, I must admit to having a bit of a read-it-and-move-on-to-the-next-book mentality. There are so many books to read, and so little time, so why spend time re-reading a book, even a classic, which could otherwise be spent profitably in reading a book I have not read?)
Apart from The Catcher in the Rye, the only other book of Salinger I have read is Franny and Zooey, one of the chronicles of the fictional Glass family, which consists of two novellas; at just over forty pages apiece they can also be called short-stories. The two stories, originally published in the 1950s in the New Yorker magazine, were published in one volume in the early 1960s. I liked it more than The Catcher in the Rye, probably because, while it has some themes, such as mental breakdown, in common with the Catcher in the Rye, it dwells more on theosophical issues, which appealed to me at the time I read the book (about fifteen years ago). These themes perhaps also reflect Salinger’s increasing preoccupation—as revealed later, most famously in a memoir by Margaret, Salinger’s daughter from his second marriage—with various religious practices, which culminated in Eastern mysticism. The various members of the Glass family appear in other works of Salinger’s slender oeuvre. These stories, originally published as short stories in the New Yorker, have later appeared in compilation volumes, which have been out of print for a considerable time—indeed, in the High Street bookshops the only Salinger novels that are regularly available are The Catcher in the Rye and Franny and Zooey. A while ago, while browsing in a local second hand book shop, I came across two of the compilations: one included Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, and Seymor: an Introduction—all featuring the fictional Glass family; the other compilation comprised nine short stories (I think it was issued in Britain originally as For Esme with Love and Squalor, the title of one of the short stories), most of which were published in the New Yorker in the 1940s, and some of which feature the Glass family. I have not got round to read them, and now seems as good a time as any. I guess much of Salinger’s out-of-print work will be rapidly reissued.
David Jerome Salinger was born in 1919. His father, Sol Salinger, was Jewish, while his mother Marie was of Scottish, Irish descent. She is reported to have changed her name to Miriam—it is not known whether she converted to Judaism—at the insistence of her husband’s Jewish family. This was apparently a closely guarded family secret, and it was not until Salinger had his Bar Mitzvah, at the age of 14, did he learn of his mother’s non-Jewish origin. Salinger’s father imported luxury food items, and the family was well off. Young Salinger was sent to a private school. He was an indifferent student, and was expelled from the school for poor grades. Later he enrolled in and completed a creative writing course at Columbia University. In the late 1930s, his father sponsored a trip to Europe, so that Salinger would learn the trade of the import-export business. Salinger spent twelve months as what he would later describe as a ‘happy tourist’ in Europe, five of which were spent in Vienna. This was at a time when the dark shadow of the war was looming large over Europe; Salinger may even have left Vienna only weeks before Hitler annexed Austria. If Salinger was sentient of the increasingly hostile anti-Semitism that was gripping Austria and Germany, his letters from those times do not reflect it. (There is a parallel here. A few years ago I read Letters Between A Father and Son—the correspondence between V.S. Naipaul, not yet twenty and studying at Oxford, and his father, worn down by the burden of taking care of a large family and the unhappiness of frustrated literary ambitions, back ‘home’ in Trinidad. I found the correspondence—which stretches over three years and comes to an end when the father suddenly dies—incredibly moving. But I was also struck by the fact that V.S. Naipaul’s letters do not so much as mention what is going on in the university, the prevailing social ambience and attitudes in his adoptive country, which, I cannot believe Naipaul, on the cusp of what was going to turn out to be a distinguished literary career, did not notice. Perhaps, he did not think it worth mentioning to his father, still living in the Caribbean backwaters. But that is strange, as Naipaul’s father, a reporter for a local rag, had literary ambitions himself—he spent the last few years of his life writing a novel which Naipaul eventually published decades after his death. Similarly Salinger, half-Jewish himself, must have noticed the increasingly unpleasant situation of the European Jews, as the continent stood on the threshold of the war; but perhaps he did not want to depress his folk back home.) He spoke cynically about the Second World War, but surprised his relatives by eagerly joining the army. He served in the counterintelligence unit, and is supposed to have met Ernst Hemingway, whom he admired as a writer. He also found time to write short stories during this period, which began to appear in various magazines such as New Yorker and Cosmopolitan. It was with the publication, in 1948, of his story titled A Perfect Day for A Bananafish (in which a member of the Glass family, the chronicles of which were to appear many years later, Seymour, makes an appearance) that he was first noticed. Three years later The Catcher in the Rye was published, and it ensured that Salinger’s name would be engraved as one of the great writers of the twentieth century.
Salinger produced, in his life a very slender volume of work—a proof, no doubt, that quantity is not everything. After the popularity of The Catcher in the Rye he became increasingly reclusive and interview-phobic. His last published work was a short story, Hapworth 16, 1924, which came out in 1965. For the next forty odd years he retreated almost entirely from public life, and, ironically, managed to enter the limelight from time to time precisely because of his extreme reclusiveness, rumours of increasingly odd dietary habits, and experiments with Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism—he allegedly became a serious reader of Zen and Mahayana Buddhism, and the Adwaita Vedanta of Hinduism, and practised meditation for hours. He fended off any attempts at what he described as intrusion on his privacy. He rarely granted interviews, and spoke to the world largely through his lawyers. The result? He became a subject of numerous studies and biographies. Here was the paradox: the more Salinger became cloistered in his home in New Hampshire, the more media became prurient. Salinger’s refusal to engage with the world was not, however, a cynical attempt to gain publicity. Around the time of the publication of The Catcher in the Rye, when he was not famous, Salinger had chosen to spend time in England because he did not want to do interviews. It would be fair to say that Salinger made no efforts to promote the book, something which is commonplace these days. He continued to protect his privacy, and came down heavily on possible derivatives of his novel with the zeal of a paranoiac, over the subsequent decades. As late as 2008, when he was ninety, he successfully brought injunction against the publication of what would have been a sequel to The Catcher in the Rye by a Swedish publisher. In the 1980s he successfully made Ian Hamilton, through his lawyers, change large sections from his unauthorised biography of Salinger. These sections related to a year long relationship Salinger had with a woman called Joyce Meynard, and were probably authentic, as they were based on the letters Salinger had written to her, and to which Hamilton had access. While it was obvious what Salinger was trying to achieve here—protect his privacy— such legal victories turned out to be Pyrrhic, as they only served to focus the media spotlight on him, something which he presumably hated. Salinger was however powerless to do anything when Meynard published a memoir of her affair with Salinger, 25 years after it ended, and also decided to auction the letters Salinger had written her. Unsurprisingly, the picture of Salinger that emerges from the memoirs is not endearing. Meynard, who was several years younger than Salinger, claimed that she was emotionally abused and later, when Salinger lost interest, treated with cold indifference, before being discarded altogether. If Meynard’s memoirs can be dismissed as an outpouring of a woman more bitter than the lemon you twisted into your gin and tonic last night (and who, in addition, was possibly publicity hungry), the memoirs of his own daughter, Margaret, which were published a year later, also showed Salinger in an unflattering light, although the daughter was, understandably, more sympathetic. Margaret described growing up in an atmosphere of paranoia and suspicion, with her father indulging in increasingly weird practices such as drinking his own urine (there was an Indian prime-minister, who used to wholeheartedly advocate the health benefits of a) vegetarianism and b) drinking one’s own urine; and he lived to be a nonagenarian, so perhaps there is something to recommend in this unusual practice), and in thrall of Eastern mysticism. (Her brother, Salinger’s other child, however, rejected this account and described growing up in an environment very different from that described by his sister).
Almost all of Salinger’s relationships, except perhaps the first one, were with women considerably younger than him. His first marriage was to a German woman, whom he met in 1945, in Paris. The woman, named Sylvia, who was either a psychologist or a doctor, was a member of the Nazi party and hated the Jews with a passion that matched Salinger’s disgust for the Nazis. Unsurprisingly, the marriage ended after only eight months, probably after the fizz went out of sex. His second wife, Carole Douglas, a daughter of a distinguished academician, whom he married in 1955, had just graduated out of high school at the time of their marriage. This marriage lasted for twelve years and produced two children—a daughter and a son. In 1967, Carole Douglas, no doubt unable to cope with Salinger’s increasingly eccentric behaviour and esoteric interests, filed for a divorce, and obtained the custody of the children as well as the marital home. Salinger then bought a house only a mile away, so that he could keep in touch with his children. His subsequent relationships were all with women much younger than him. Joyce Meynard, for example, was only nineteen when she had a relationship with Salinger, more than 30 years her senior. His third wife, Coleen O’Neill, whom he married in 1988, and to whom he remained married till he died, was forty years his junior. In 1955, Salinger wrote: ‘Some of my best friends were children. In fact all of my best friends are children.’
So why did Salinger stop writing? Or, to be precise, stop publishing? In his final 1974-interview (which he gave when he was bringing a lawsuit to ban the publication of pirated copies of his out of print early stories) Salinger said, ‘I like to write. I love to write. But I just write for myself and my own privacy.’ Could it be that Salinger became disillusioned with the publishing world? Or, was it the case that Salinger, a man acutely sensitive to the criticism of his work, was less than thrilled when his post-Catcher in the Rye-work was not embraced by the critics—which included John Updike and Mary McCarthy—with the same gushing enthusiasm and admiration as his seminal novel, and turned his back to the world of publication? Could there be a medical explanation? His increasing reclusiveness, preoccupation with mysticism, succession of strange diets, and the paranoid zeal with which he guarded the legacy of his work—were they indicative of a mind becoming increasingly unhinged? His daughter diagnosed PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) in him, and declared that Salinger never really recovered completely from the trauma of the Second World War, which, she further hypothesized, turned him into a control-freak. It seems unlikely, though: reclusive he might have become, but Salinger could still charm young women into forming relationships with him. He might have shunned the world, but he was certainly not, not on the available evidence, tired of human contact, especially when it involved nubile women. Or, is there a simple explanation, which we have all overlooked—the elephant in the room? Is it possible that Salinger realised that his creative powers were on the wane and, while he continued to love to write, he was only too aware that what he was producing was not meeting the high standards he had set for himself? That brings to mind the question what exactly happens when the river of creation dries out? Does one just stop writing because one no longer gets the inspiration, or does one continue to write, out of sheer habit, but the quality is lacking? Salinger, according to his daughter, continued to write copiously, and colour-coded all his writings; but never allowed them to be published. The rumour has it that there are almost fifteen volumes of hitherto unpublished work in a safe in his house. It seems unlikely that Salinger has not made a will and laid down his wishes as to what he would like to happen to these manuscripts after his death. Would he have wished them to be published? It seems unlikely; if he wanted them published, he could have easily done so in his life-time. But neither did he destroy them (assuming, of course, these manuscripts actually exist). What would the family do? Time will tell.
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.