Nothing To Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes

I read Nothing To be Frightened Of over several weeks, reading short sections at a time. This book is described on the back cover by Penelope Lively as:

A maverick form of family memoir that is mainly an extended reflection on the fear of death and on that great consolation, religious belief … it is entertaining, intriguing, absorbing … an inventive and invigorating slant on what is nowadays called “life writing”.

It is a collection of thoughts centred around Barnes’s fear of death and so inevitably he considers the question of religion and especially God – in fact he begins his book with this statement: I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.

Later, he writes, Missing God is rather like Being English, a feeling aroused mainly by attack. When my country is abused, a dormant, if not to say narcoleptic, patriotism stirs. And when it comes to God, I find myself more provoked by atheistic absolutism than by, say, the often bland, tentative hopefulness of the Church of England. (page 77)

His agnosticism doesn’t help him with his fear of dying, but then, again, he thinks that faith does not necessarily remove the fear of death anyway – there are those who fear death among those who have faith as well as among the irreligious.

But this is more than a book about dying because interwoven with his thoughts about his agnosticism and death are anecdotes about his family and himself, thoughts on literature (particularly French literature) and it’s relationship to life. I found it all fascinating,  but it’s his autobiographical passages that I found the most interesting, sharing details about his family’s beliefs and the deaths of his parents and grandparents, of the rivalry between him and his brother, his mother’s solipsism and manipulative behaviour, his father’s seemingly passive approach to life and the difficulties of really knowing a person.

He states that it is easier with fiction than with life – fictional characters are easier to see, whereas in real life ‘the better you know someone , the less well often you see them. … They may be so close as to be out of focus … Often when we talk about someone very familiar, we are referring back to the time when we first properly saw them, when they were held in the most useful -and flattering light – light at the correct focal distance.’ (page 157)

He and his brother have different memories of their parents and grandparents and of their own early relationship, which shows how unreliable memory can be. I suppose I agree more with his brother, the philosopher Jonathan Barnes, who thinks that memories are often false and not to be trusted without external support, rather than Julian, who says he is more trusting, or self deluding, so shall continue as all my memories are true.

This is by no means a gloomy, pessimistic book.  It’s written in an informal tone, almost as though he is talking to the reader, and not being divided into chapters adds to that sense of being involved in a conversation. But is far from being a simple read – there is an awful lot packed into this book, an intensely personal book that reflects the complexity of our views of life and death. It gave me much to think about and even made me chuckle in parts.

And finally thinking about being remembered/forgotten after his death, Barnes considers who will be his last reader because with that reader he will finally be forgotten – and then he reflects that your last reader is, by definition, someone who didn’t recommend your books to anyone else. You bastard! Not good enough, eh? (page 226)

I think it extremely unlikely that I’ll be his last reader!

Reading Challenge: Non Fiction Reading Challenge 2015. This is only the 5th non fiction book I’ve read so far this year!

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

When Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending first came out in 2011 I was initially interested in reading it, then was put off by a few critical reviews of it (something along the lines of it being about schoolboy-adolescent behaviour) and thought I’d look at it in the library before deciding whether or not to read it.  A year ago I saw it in a secondhand book shop (Barter Books) and bought it, after a quick glance told me it wasn’t just about adolescents, but I left it languishing on my bookshelves until the other day when I suddenly felt the urge to read it, I don’t know why! It seemed the right time.

Well, I really liked it (so much for reading reviews – it’s better to make up your own mind). It’s about memory and the effect of time, about ageing, about the nature of history and literature, about nostalgia and the question of responsibility.

It’s not a long book – just 150 pages – and I read it in two sittings. But its length belies its complexity and it’s actually quite a puzzle, because the narrator Tony knows that his memory is unreliable, that he can’t be sure of the actual events of his life. The best he can do is to be true to the impressions of those events that have remained with him. As he says at the beginning of the book:

… what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed. (page 3)

Later on he realises that:

… as the witnesses to your life diminish there is less corroboration, and therefore less certainty, as to what you are or have been. (page 59)

The first part of the book is about Tony and his friends at school. There were three of them initially, then Adrian joined their clique. All of them were pretentious, but Adrian was rather different – he pushed them ‘to believe in the application of thought to life, in the notion that principles should guide actions.‘ (page 9)

Gradually, after they finished school and went their various ways through university, their contact with each other became less frequent. Tony’s relationship with his girlfriend, Veronica ends but he is less than happy when Adrian and Veronica began to see each other. Soon after Tony learns that Adrian committed suicide. Years later, after Tony has retired, he is shocked when he receives a letter telling him that Veronica’s mother has left him £500 and Adrian’s diary. However, Veronica has possession of the diary and refuses to hand it over to Tony, stating that she was not ready to part with it yet. The rest of the book concerns Tony’s efforts to get the diary and to work out what actually happened to Adrian.

Of course, it is not straight- forward as Tony meets with the brick wall that his memory has put between him and Veronica. And for the reader this poses a problem, because we see events through Tony’s words, what he says he did and thought, and what he thought about other people and their actions. He wants to know why Adrian committed suicide, what happened between him and Veronica, and how come her mother had Adrian’s diary. His memories are suspect and he knows it and it does not help him (or the reader) that Veronica is so unhelpful and tells him he ‘just doesn’t get it … You never did and you never will‘.

Just what did happen is never stated explicitly and the reader is left to puzzle it out with just a few clues. I’m not sure I got the whole picture, but I enjoyed trying to unravel the mystery. In the end I think it illustrates the nature of memory rather than being concerned about what actually happened, because as Adrian says:

History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation. (page 17)