Julian Barnes: Nothing to be Frightened Of (2008)

Awareness of death came early, when I was thirteen or fourteen. … My friend R. recently asked me how often I think about death, and in what circumstances. At least once each waking day, I replied; and then there are the intermittent nocturnal attacks. … […] One of the few comforts of death-awareness is that there is always — almost always — someone worse off than yourself. Not just R., but also our mutual friend G. He is the long-time holder of the thanatophobes’ gold medal for having been woken by le réveil mortel at the age of four (four! you bastard!). — Nothing to be Frightened Of.

I have found that four givens are particularly relevant to psychotherapy: the inevitability of death for each of us and for those we love; the freedom to make our lives as we will; our ultimate aloneness; and, finally, the absence of any obvious meaning or sense to life. However grim these givens may seem, they contain the seeds of wisdom and redemption …[…] Of these facts of life, death is the most obvious, most intuitively apparent. At an early age, far earlier than is often thought, we learn that death will come, and that from it there is no escape. — Irvin Yalom, Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy (1989)

Early deprivation experiences, trauma, separation anxiety, and the corresponding development of psychological defences set the stage for an individual method of coping with death anxiety. Thereafter, people accommodate to the fear of death in varying degrees, through the withdrawal of energy and emotional investment in life-affirming activities and close, personal relationships. — Robert Firestone (Death Studies, 1993)

Julian Barnes’s book-length essay which is part meditation on his own fear of death and part family memoir has been variously described as: superb, his funniest and frankest work yet, captivating, compelling, consistently interesting and entertaining, witty, poignant and allusive, scholarly and jaunty, an elegant memoir and meditation …. I could go on. I found it all of these but ultimately, from a psychological point of view, a bit shallow. Writing that description now, I find it mean-spirited and I want to acknowledge that of course Barnes is immensely entertaining and scholarly and also wise. But I wish he had gone further in his exploration of his own anxiety. Perhaps it’s inevitable that I would say that. As a psychologist I want people to work on their issues and achieve as much insight into their own dynamics as possible. Barnes, by contrast, is mistrustful of psychology. One of his characters (Geoffrey Braithwaite in Flaubert’s Parrot), quotes Flaubert on the limitations of language:

Other people think you want to talk. ‘Do you want to talk about Ellen?’ they ask, hinting that they won’t be embarrassed if you break down. Sometimes you talk, sometimes you don’t; it makes little difference. The words aren’t the right ones; or rather, the right words don’t exist. ‘Language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.’ You talk, and you find the language of bereavement foolishly inadequate. You seem to be talking about other people’s griefs. I loved her; we were happy; I miss her. She didn’t love me; we were unhappy; I miss her. There is a limited choice of prayers on offer: gabble the syllables. (p.161)

Ah, isn’t that good? The beauty of language in describing how difficult it is for words to capture emotional experience. Perhaps this is what I like most about Barnes’ writing. The sections in N2BFO on his parents and his brother, for example, I found poignant and rich. There’s so much emotion and so little. The Barnes brothers grew up believing that the expressing of emotions was simply not done. Love was a four-letter word that was never spoken. And right at the start of this book, Jonathan (Julian’s older brother) says that the idea of missing God is soppy. One of the most memorable illustrations of this lack of emotion in JB’s family life comes after his first novel is published. Before his mom delivers her verdict about it being a “bombardment of filth”, Julian’s dad provides his opinion on an orchestrated car trip to the shops. Here his dad is only able to tell him that he approves and is proud of him by not looking at him directly. The scene for this awkward show of almost affection is, as with most family interactions, set up by Julian’s narcissistic, controlling and critical mom. What a family! Who wouldn’t be drawn to JB’s descriptions of such everyday family dysfunctionality?

It is these family scenes that I loved the most, and which constitute for me the emotional core of the book. For the rest there’s some philosophising about religion, a lot of fairly interesting literary allusions and a whole raft of would-you-rathers which became a bit tedious. JB acknowledges that meditating on one’s own death is solipsistic but it’s also something that he’s compulsively drawn to do. And a lot of it is entertaining. The difference between the hypothetical last reader of his books and the last visitor to his grave, for example, is pretty funny in a dark, dry kind of way. Although I couldn’t help thinking that it really shouldn’t matter in the broad scheme of things if people are reading his books in 200 years’ time.

Reflecting on my dissatisfaction with Barnes’s level of engagement, I was reminded of the depths which Yalom achieves with his existential psychology. Yalom uses death anxiety to reaffirm what’s most meaningful about life and to go deeper in his understanding about the complexity of human relationships. Barnes seems to get lost (or stuck) in his defences. I start to wonder about the effect of his emotionally unavailable mother and the link between separation anxiety and death anxiety. And I’m pleased to notice that Yalom confirms what I suspect, that existential anxiety (or fear of dying) begins in childhood. The implications of this for N2BFO are that rather than deserving the gold medal for thanatophobia, JB’s friend G is perhaps more normal than he appears. By contrast, JB seems at pains to locate this fear in adolescence whereas it seems far more likely to have a deeper source.

About 60 pages from the end of N2BFO, I started looking around the internet to find interesting material for this review. What about his wife? I wondered. Why does she get so little mention in the book? And then I stumbled across her obituary. What? When? Like a Machiavellian twist in the plot, it then emerges that Pat Kavanagh, celebrated literary agent and JB’s beloved wife, died of a brain tumour in October 2008, seven months after the publication of N2BFO. The traumatically short passage from diagnosis to death was apparently only five weeks. Reading this I was shocked. Oh no, poor JB. I suddenly lost a lot of my appetite for this review. It’s all very well to joke and theorise about death when it’s one step removed. But here it’s particularly poignant. Maybe Barnes could do with a good dose of Yalom after all.

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7 Responses to Julian Barnes: Nothing to be Frightened Of (2008)

  1. I wonder how he would write that book now. That’s a hard loss.

  2. Emily says:

    i guess the question is whether that changes the book. some might say it shouldn’t, but it would for me.

  3. litlove says:

    Yes, it was really shocking and strange when she died so soon afterwards, and it was one of those odd, silent marriages that seem elastic and strong. Kavanagh had an affair (rather well-publicised) with Jeanette Winterson about twenty years ago, but the marriage held. Barnes has never spoken a word about it, which makes me wonder about how much else that’s real and private he doesn’t say.

    Extremely interesting review, Pete.

  4. Pete says:

    Lilian & Emily – Yes, I think it must change the book. But somehow I get the feeling that this is too private a realm for him to share. In retrospect, leaving his wife out appears as a blind spot rather than a calculated decision.

    Litlove – Thanks. Yes, I read about that (difficult not to on the Net when you’re reading up on him) and it made me look at Flaubert’s Parrot in a new way. I think the novel came out before his wife’s affair but there are definite parralels.

  5. openpalm says:

    did you read Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking? it was very good company in the first awful months after my divorce — i felt much more like a widow than the culturally iconic divorcee. Again the link between separation and death.

    i remember being worried about death at about 7. Worried with no one to talk to. in 1959 america, children were all supposed to be Breck shampoo perfect and happy happy happy. talk to a child about death? and in my family, my parents refused funerals (so death, again, goes unnoticed.)

  6. Pete says:

    openpalm – Haven’t read that one (another one for the TBR list) but glad it was comforting for you. And I’m curious to hear more about your experiences. As you say, that avoidance of death is not helpful and leads to more anxiety. I’ve just been reading about mourning and melancholia and how melancholia is not just the loss of the loved person but also the ego. That makes a lot of sense in terms of separation = death. But how does one grow a new sense of self in those circumstances?

  7. Dorothy W. says:

    Very interesting review! I found the book satisfying, but I can see how a psychologist might want some more probing and depth. I can definitely see that the book is an invitation for some psychological analysis! I did find myself getting a tad bit impatient towards the end, so I wonder if I wasn’t feeling some of tedium you mention.

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