- Beautiful Shapely Stories and Hard Exact Truths
Early in Julian Barnes’s exhilarating meditation on death, he tells of seeing his mother’s corpse. When the funeral director apologetically says, “She’s on a trolley,” Barnes replies, “Oh, she didn’t stand on ceremony.” That the author of Flaubert’s Parrot and England, England is one of the wittiest writers alive is no secret; but that he is the most seriously witty of living English writers is confirmed by his latest book. His last book, the novel Arthur & George (about Arthur Conan Doyle’s real-life crusade to absolve an Anglo-Indian from a miscarriage of justice), is deeply serious in its account of how human tragedies occur because of the human incapacity to see things as they are. Perhaps, Barnes implies, the British are congenitally myopic. Matthew Arnold would have agreed. Like Arnold, Barnes looks to the French for an objective grasp of life and death: to the stoical Montaigne (“To be a philosopher is to learn how to die”), to the ironist Jules Renard (“I don’t know if God exists, but it would be better for His reputation if He didn’t”), and, above all, to Flaubert, who didn’t flinch from looking at the corpses that his doctor-father’s students dissected: “A late-Romantic morbidity infected the adolescent Gustave,” Barnes observes, “but he never lost the realist’s need, and demand, to look where others averted their gaze. It was a human duty as well as a writerly one.”
Insistent that his book is not “my autobiography” and that he is not “in search of my parents,” Barnes nevertheless tells us a good deal about his upbringing in Leicester, about his silent agnostic father and his articulate atheistic mother (both teachers), and about his exasperatingly levelheaded brother, a philosopher. (As schoolboys collecting stamps, the brother chose “British Empire,” whereupon Julian prophetically chose the “Rest of the World.”) The accounts of his parents’ declines and deaths are all the more forceful because of Barnes’s lack of stylistic embellishment. (Thackeray, the arch-ironist among British novelists, always goes soft when he describes death, but never Barnes.) Seeing for the last time, from his hospital bed, the woman he has been united to for so many years, Barnes senior surmises, “I think you’re my wife.” (“In all my remembered life,” the son notes, “he never told me that he loved me; nor did I reply in kind.”) But Barnes junior admires his father for “giving up hope” at the end: “his was the correct response of an intelligent man to an irrecoverable situation.” Like John Stuart Mill the son “had no faith to lose” as a child—“only a resistance, which felt more [End Page lxxxix] heroic than it was, to the mild regime of God-referring that an English education entailed.” At Oxford he begged off going to chapel with the excuse that he was “a happy atheist.” When asked by a senior classmate if he was interested in sports, he replied, “I’m afraid I’m an aesthete” (“I wince now for my reply”). As for his being a happy atheist, he adds that “the adjective should be taken as applying to that noun and no further.”
The turning point in his youth—“le réveil mortel”—occurred in early adolescence: the beginning of a lifelong fear of death. It is here that Barnes turns to his adoptive parents, writers and composers mainly, for reassurance. “Such artists—such dead artists—are my daily companions, but also my ancestors. They are my true bloodline (I expect my brother feels the same about Plato and Aristotle).” André Malraux defines art as man’s “revolt against man’s fate”; and Barnes follows warily in the footsteps of Walter Pater and Théophile Gautier (“his adolescent consolation”). “Do we create art in order to defeat, or at least defy, death?” he asks. “To transcend it, to put it in its place?” But not all works of art last, Barnes reminds himself. What of his own novels? “A novelist might hope for...