Oh death, where is thy zing?

Kathy Hunt

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

‘ 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

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