Apreciating absurdity

2008-10-08 00:00

Should the above title be read as a statement or as a question? Either way, it refers to death and dying. Julian Barnes admits to being terrified of both (which imparts much irony to the title). And it is perhaps this terror that drove him to write what is a surprisingly witty, challenging and entertaining book — a ruthlessly honest and defiantly courageous attempt to come to terms with the unspeakable (to some) fact of mortality.

Barnes, now in his early sixties and with numerous publications (fiction and non-fiction) under his belt, turns here to what is an increasingly unavoidable concern for people in his age group. His book involves not only his own highly intelligent if panic-stricken reflections, questions and suggested answers about the whole death issue, but also numerous quotations from a number of famous writers (mostly 19th-century French) and a couple of composers and philosophers expressing their thoughts, fears, hopes and (always) questions about mortality.

Barnes also talks a lot about his parents and grandparents: how they died, what they said and appeared to feel beforehand, and the effects of their terminal illnesses and deaths on himself and on his elder brother. (The brother is an academic philosopher, and Julian constantly and amusingly contrasts himself, the writer, with his cool and analytical sibling.)

The book is also to an extent an autobiography, though it is too agile and multi-faceted to be a systematic example of the genre. Barnes includes a great deal of candid information about himself as a person and as a writer, about his brother, and about his quiet and amiable father who was, it seems, overshadowed and relegated to near-silence by Barnes’s manipulative and domineering mother. The author’s portrait of her, despite constant attempts to be understanding, is inclined towards the bitter and critical.

Another subsidiary strand of interest in the book is what it means to be a writer and (a related matter) the complex interplay between memory and imagination.

Although the central concern of the book may sound like a morbid obsession, the book is anything but. The whole is irradiated by Barnes’s darkly glittering humour and his keen appreciation of absurdity in people (himself included) and in life, and is an absolute page-turner. Intelligent, learned, brightly hysterical, this is above all a dizzyingly brave attempt by a superb writer to confront the one sure fact about the human condition.

David Pike

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