Nothing to be frightened of / Julian Barnes (2008)

I couldn’t put this memoir down. I didn’t mean to read it all but I couldn’t help it. I could discern no structure at all, but just followed Barnes for two hundred pages of reflections on death and God through the lens of his family. The whole memoir has the sort of wistfulness of the opening line quoted in the title of this post: ‘I don’t believe in God but I miss him.’

Despite the constant humour, it is a frightening book to read. I have never thought through so fully the consequences of not believing in life after death. Even in my moments of strongest doubts about Christianity, I haven’t sustained the outlook that death means the permanent extinguishment of my consciousness. No wonder he’s even more scared of death than me. I think it’s immensely brave of atheists and agnostics to live with hope, meaning and purpose. I don’t know how I would. (Indeed, at times Barnes seems to be suggesting that he has to suspend thinking about the way things actually are in order to live with meaning.)

The title is even cleverer than it sounds; it’s nothingness, extinction that he’s frightened of.

He mentions his wife only once, yet about the time the book was published, she died. I wonder if he wrote with a knowledge that she was dying. If he did, he is a remarkably disciplined writer, probably marshalling all the insights his wife’s dying brought him, but recasting them to protect her privacy. The amazing achievement of the memoir that seems to tell all, that so casually reveals so much about his mother, father, brother, self – and yet keeps hidden bigger parts of his life that he didn’t want to or couldn’t tell us about.

Perhaps my favourite passages were the ones reflecting on the art of writing from the perspective of not only our own deaths but the ultimate forgetting of our work. Every work, he tells us, must have a final reader:

For writers, the process of being forgotten isn’t clear-cut. ‘Is it better for a writer to die before he is forgotten, or to be forgotten before he dies?’ But ‘forgotten’ here is only a comparative term, meaning: fall out of fashion, be used up, seen through, superseded, judged too superficial – or, for that matter, too ponderous, too serious – for a later age. But truly forgotten, now that’s much more interesting. First, you fall out of print, consigned to the recesses of the secondhand bookshop and dealer’s website. Then a brief revival, if you’re lucky, with a title or two reprinted; then another fall, and a period when a few graduate students, pushed for a thesis topic, will wearily turn your pages and wonder why you wrote so much. Eventually, the publishing houses forget, academic interest recedes, society changes, and humanity evolves a little further, as evolution carries out its purposeless purpose of rendering us all the equivalent of bacteria and amoebae. This is inevitable. And at some point – it must logically happen – a writer will have a last reader. I am not asking for sympathy; this aspect of a wrtier’s living and dying is a given. At some point between now and the six-billion-years-away death of the planet, every writer will have his or her last reader. (225)

Barnes then addresses his last reader, at first thanking them but then realising that by definition this last reader has not passed on his work to anyone else, and so cursing them. A sobering thought. This reasonably insignificant post, my one book, this entire blog, everything I have ever written will have a last reader. Is it you?