Oh death, where is thy zing?
‘ FOR me,’’ writes Julian Barnes, ‘‘ death is the one appalling fact which defines life.’’ It wakes him in the middle of the night and, no, not gently. He is ‘‘ pitchforked back into consciousness, awake, alone, utterly alone, beating pillow with fist and shouting ‘ Oh no Oh No OH NO’ in an endless wail’’. These episodes shame him because his tools of trade fail him. ‘‘ For God’s sake, you’re a writer,’’ I say to myself. ‘‘ You do words . . . can’t you at least protest against it . . . more interestingly than this?’’
Published in 2004, a short story collection called The Lemon Table shows that Barnes has been doing exactly that, and if words and deeds are not enough there is a Dorian Gray photo on the dust jacket with the sexagenarian novelist smiling and, by golly, not a day over 40.
Denial is not a river in Egypt, nor was it an Egyptian monopoly.
According to Woody Allen, ‘‘ death is one of the few things that can be done as easily lying down’’. Not being remotely French, Allen goes unquoted by Barnes, who nevertheless refuses to take death horizontally and has produced this long essai to prove it. There are no chapter headings here, only the tasteful little scrolls favoured by inspired signwriters and long- haul truck drivers. These divide Barnes’s concerns, obsessions and recollections, marking each movement in this symphony of solipsism, one of his favourite words.
First there is his family, his parents, both teachers remarkable for their ‘‘ almost complete lack of emotion’’. Older by three years, his brother is a philosopher, an arch argufier who, true to his calling, never seems to concur with Barnes, or probably anyone, anywhere, on anything, at all, ever.
Most of us require vats of red wine to be this disagreeable, but the snob in Barnes is proud of his big brother, who specialises in Aristotle and the pre- Socratics and has taught at Oxford, Geneva and the Sorbonne. Roped in as unofficial supervisor, the philosopher describes as ‘‘ soppy’’ Barnes’s very first sentence: ‘‘ I don’t believe in God but I miss Him’’, and continues to snipe throughout the book.
When enough is enough, Barnes the writer gets his own back by revealing that the philosopher owns six llamas and likes to swan about his dozen French acres in an 18th- century costume, complete with brocade waistcoat, knee breeches and buckle shoes.
Finding no aid or comfort at the house of his only sibling, Barnes takes refuge in the minds of his brothers- in- arts, a bunch of dead French writers beginning with Jules Renard. Born in 1864, Renard grew up in a small Burgundian village. Anne- Rosa, his mother, was ‘‘ garrulous, bigoted and mendacious’’.
His father didn’t speak to her for the last 30 years of his life. Both parents committed suicide, he with a shotgun, she, deranged, by flinging herself backwards down the village well. In between, Renard’s brother expired suddenly at work. A clerk in the Paris office of the Highways Department, Maurice Renard had been forced to work next to the main pipe of the building’s steam- driven heating system.
‘‘ They’ll kill me with their central heating,’’ he had predicted, and they did. But it was his mother’s death — which he found impenetrable — that prompted Renard to say: ‘‘ Perhaps the fact that God is incomprehensible is the strongest argument for his existence’’, a piece of almost Jesuitical sophistry redeemed only by Renard’s sincerity and grief.
‘‘ Too many French deaths?’’ asks Barnes on page 208. Well, yawn, I didn’t like to say. And he does throw in the odd Russian and a couple of Englishmen. But what are you doing, Julian, wandering around graveyards and imagining yourself dead, unfamous and unvisited? Or dead, vaguely famous and visited by the occasional and reluctant PhD student who squats down and, like you, uses the key from his rental car to clean out ‘‘ the lichened chiselcuts’’ on your ‘‘ simple slab’’, a bit of granite overgrown and neglected from the moment of interment; three Man Booker short lists and one still needs a scythe to get to you. But worst of all you suspect, and rightly, that even if you’d had children, they would have been far too busy to weed around a father who, let’s face it, got really boring towards the pointy end.
Haunted by his parents’ inelegant deaths and hoping, desperately if not poetically, ‘‘ that there’s some celestial f . . king point to it all’’, Barnes examines a corporate dying model, lampooning an American chief executive called Eugene O’Kelly, who was given three months to live in 2005. O’Kelly organised his dying as efficiently as he managed his firm, but first he wrote a short story. ‘‘ As if the world needed another one,’’ says Julian, not a little miffed.
Which brings me back to The Lemon Table and a sentence in a story called The Silence : ‘‘ Among the Chinese,’’ it reads, ‘‘ the lemon is the symbol of death.’’ Here it means a dud, and Barnes has written one. Kathy Hunt is a literary critic based in rural Victoria.
Not enough rigour with the mortis: Julian Barnes