Maclean’s Interview: Julian Barnes

Writer Julian Barnes talks to Kenneth Whyte about his atheism and saints, his parents and what makes for a best death

Julian BarnesQ: You spent, I imagine, a year or two, at least, working on your new book, Nothing to be Frightened Of, thinking about death and issues around death—were you able to come up with a way around it?

A: I’m afraid the mortality rate remains at 100 per cent. I didn’t expect to discover a loophole in the writing of the book. It’s a subject that has been with me for 50 years, since I first had what the French in that wonderful phrase call le réveillé mortel, the awakening to the fact of death, and I suppose I’ve been heading toward it as the subject of a book for about 20 years, and then my parents died and that was obviously a factor in this book coming into existence.

Q: What was it about your parents’ death that opened the way?

A: Well, I’m not one of those writers who think, “Oh, I could write a book about my parents dying.” It never crossed my mind. It’s taken a lot of working out at a subconscious level—or preconscious level—before it came to the moment where I thought, “Yes, I now see how I can do my death book. It’s gotta start as a memoir, it’s gotta move into essay, and move back and forth between memoir and essay, move from the particular to the general.” As a novelist I can only deal with general ideas when they’re attached to people, and the two people whose deaths I witnessed most closely were those of my parents.

Q: Your first line is, “I don’t believe in God but I miss him.”

A: That’s right, yes. I just found myself saying that when I was on some public stage and someone said, “Do you believe in God?” and that was my instant response, and it was one that on reflection I thought was true. I grew up in a family where, probably from the point when my grandmother lost her Methodist faith and became a Communist—or socialist—nearly, oh, 90 years ago, there hasn’t been anything that you would call faith in the family, let alone church attendance. But, you know, when a great story ends I think we all miss it, and it was a great story. There were aspects of it that leave a sense of want. One is that if life is a mere prelude or preparation for something else, then life becomes both more trivial and more important, and if not then we can grow to our full height but that height is comparatively dwarfish. If this is all there is and this is all we are then it’s a bit disappointing.

Q: You do talk about various writers and friends contemplating death and contemplating heaven, and I can’t recall one depiction of heaven being the least appealing.

A: Well, you sound a bit like my brother. I regard myself as a rationalist, but my brother—who’s spent his life teaching ancient philosophy—is a super-rationalist and makes me seem sloppy and barely reasonable, and so part of the book is a friendly fraternal argument with my brother. He says, “I’d hate to have to spend eternity in the presence of saints and martyrs,” and I say, “Well, actually, saints weren’t just pious, boring fellows. They were often at the cutting edge of social change and they had often very interesting deaths, as well. And in medieval times they’re probably some of the most intelligent, sophisticated people on the earth. After all, Dom Pérignon—after whom the champagne is named—was a monk.” I don’t see why you should think that heaven must be infinitely boring.

Q: You write elsewhere that we have replaced our traditional ideas of heaven with a secular, modern heaven of self-ful?llment, where it all comes down to development of the personality and having a high-status job and pursuing material goods, which sounds, relative to what you’ve described, rather grim.

A: I think as modern society has become more secular we sell ourselves a sort of junior version of paradise. We too often need someone else to define what it is that we want, and in the old days religion did that for us, and nowadays it’s multinational corporations trying to sell us stuff, or tone our bodies, or make us forget about death, so I don’t think it’s a substantial improvement.

Q: You quote somebody—I think it might have been Robespierre—on atheism being . . .

A: Aristocratic. Yes, that’s Robespierre. I find that the hardline atheist’s dismissal of people’s religious beliefs as merely stupid and primitive is arrogant. And, you know, I agree with them that this life is all we have in all probability, but I don’t believe that people who have a religious faith are necessarily either bigots or idiots. What I’m saying is that I find the spiritual or religious impulse in people to be natural and to be respected, even if the doings in the name of established churches are often nefarious and oppressive.

Q: There seems to be more certainty about atheism in the U.K., when in a lot of the rest of the world we’re seeing something of a revival in religious fervour.

A: Yes. The Brits, after all, gave Darwin to the world. I think in Europe the retreat of the traditional religions is strong. The collapse of religion in Ireland, for example, and France, and to a lesser extent Italy has been quite spectacular.

Q: America being one grand exception.

A: America is one grand exception indeed. America manages to combine extreme materialism with extreme religiosity, and it is a bizarre thought that in this presidential cycle we could have had a woman in the White House, we might have a black man in the White House, but if either of them had said they were atheists neither of them would have had a hope in hell, all too literally.

Q: Who was it that said death is not an artist?

A: It was Jules Renard. I think he meant that we mustn’t try to glamorize death, that death is an artisan doing his job. He’s a bureaucrat, he’s an apparatchik. We shouldn’t think of death as being something that comes into our life at a particular artistic moment, i.e., to bring our life’s story to its appropriate conclusion. Death is much more of a sort of four-square butcher who doesn’t take us into consideration at all.

Q: I don’t know what I find more horrifying, that idea or the idea that death could be an artist who might want to stage-manage my death to make my suffering just a little more exquisite.

A: No, no. It’s like the old-style way of thinking about death was that it was a man—a skeleton—with a scythe and a cloak coming for us, whereas in fact it’s written into our DNA. We carry death within us. Though that takes a bit of getting used to. It’s very hard for us to think there’s nothing special about me dying, there’s no plan to it.

Q: What’s the best death that you came across, one that you would choose for yourself?

A: Oh, that is one question I haven’t been able to answer.

Q: A.E. Housman’s was good.

A: Yes, he had cancer and first of all the doctor told him a dirty joke, then he gave him a final morphine injection, and I think Housman said, “Beautifully done.” That’s pretty stoical. I could do without the dirty joke. I would rather listen to a great piece of music.

Q: You mentioned that people tend to want music more than, say, literature.

A: I suspect that I would, having spent my time with words, with the beautiful drudgery of words. There is something, you know, more intravenous about music. Your own best death would be a painless one in a state of calm and philosophy in the presence of people who you loved or were fond of, and lucid, whereas more likely than not you’ll die, in the Western world nowadays, in hospital rather than at home, often at two or three in the morning having been kept alive for longer than you should have been and in a state of delirium, quite possibly, or severely weakened.

Q: Do people want to die that way?

A: No, being in good health at the moment, I can say I would cheerfully shoot myself first, but I have a great psychiatrist friend who says when it comes to it you will always want that extra bit of life.

Q: There was a really interesting story in the book about a CEO, a very successful, goal-setting and goal-achieving man who finds he has a few months to live, and attacks his death as he would attack any other problem.

A: It’s a death that strikes me as both admirable and rather terrifying. It’s admirable in that we want to die in character, and here’s this CEO of a big American company who, very, very methodically unravels all his relationships, he brings them all to a conclusion with a note or a meeting or phone call, and he does it exactly as if there’s a major problem that has to be solved in his business, but the difference being that this isn’t a problem that can be solved. And then, he does go back to the church in a way, or back to some spiritual belief, which is perhaps a cop-out. But the way he goes about it is instructive, to say the least.

Q: You wrote the book mostly from your thoughts, meditations and reading. You don’t spend time with people who are dying.

A: No. Well, I spent time with my parents.

Q: But you actually haven’t been in the presence of someone as they died.

A: No, I’ve never seen that. It’s clearly a personal book, both in its essay side and its memoir side. It adds up to a sort of slice through my brain. One of the lines of thought in the book is about how we are amateurs in the running of our own lives, and how there are certain areas where we think we know what we’re doing, usually in work areas. Butin areas relating to the emotional life and the spiritual or the now non-existently spiritual life, we wing it. We don’t think about death and then all of a sudden it’s arriving and, well, how are we going to cope with it? We’re basically do-it-yourself artists.

Q: Do you think anyone has a chance for the kind of a death that Montagne described, the scenes with dignity and courage and consoling last words to friends and family?

A: You don’t hear about it much, do you? I mean, we’ve grown suspicious of famous last words. They seem sort of heroic and we don’t really live in heroic times anymore. I don’t think we should expect to be put in circumstances where we can have a good death, put it that way. It may be that the good death nowadays is the illegal one, which is the chosen suicide when things get too bad.

Q: You seem to favour burial over cremation.

A: It’s a mixture of dubious motives, a sort of sentimental hope that someone in the future will want to visit my grave because they liked one of my books, and also a sort of absurd thought that there might be some sort of technology to regrow people who are dead and it might be interesting to regrow a writer and see if he ended up writing Flaubert’s Parrot all over again. But this is pretty desperate and fantastical stuff, I admit, and also I think even if you express a choice between burial and cremation you very often find that whoever’s in charge thinks, “Oh, well, we can’t be bothered with that. He was just hallucinating when he said he wanted to be buried. He didn’t really mean it.”

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