Julian Barnes: interview
Julian Barnes‘ new book, ’Nothing to be Frightened of‘, is a rapt meditation on death which mixes essay and memoir to elegant, frequently moving effect. Time Out meets the Francophile writer at his local in Tufnell Park
It’s hard to write about death without a certain solipsism creeping in. ‘Nothing to be Frightened of’ resists this, perhaps because it’s so much more than a straightforward memoir.
‘I’m a novelist, so I can’t write about ideas unless they’re attached to people. And while I’m not the most death-fearing person in the book, I’m pretty high on the list. So I suppose I occasionally thought… not that what I was writing was solipsistic, but you wonder how you’re getting on with the reader. That’s very important to you. What if the reader says: “I don’t think that’s true at all” or “I don’t agree; I don’t feel that” or “Get on with it. You’ve had a good life.” It’s different from writing fiction where you have different sorts of voices in your head as responses to what you’re writing. I didn’t feel self-pitying when I was writing it, so I hope it doesn’t come across as self-indulgent. I regarded it as an examination of the case rather than as an autobiography.’
There’s an important distinction, isn’t there, between being death-fearing and being morbid?
‘Yes. I am death-fearing. I don’t think I’m morbid. That seems to me a fear of death that goes beyond the rational. Whereas it seems to me to be entirely rational to fear death!’
You quote Philip Larkin, who felt the same. Where would you locate him on the spectrum?
‘I think he’s about where I am. I think he was a natural melancholic and the fact that he lived alone, even if he didn’t work alone, aggravated the condition. There’s something about society and useful short-term distractions that takes your mind off it. I don’t know whether I shall die screaming as Larkin did, or would have done if he hadn’t been drugged. I don’t think he was morbid. If you’re morbid you write about death in a late-Romantic decadent way, whereas Larkin wrote about it in a very clear-eyed, rational way in poems like “Aubade”: “Not to be here,/Not to be anywhere,/And soon; nothing more terrible,/nothing more true.” ’
You describe waking at night and being ‘pitchforked’ into terror by death-awareness.
‘I’ve had night terrors for decades. The fear doesn’t seem to have diminished after the age of 60 as my friend G assured me it would. All bad things are exaggerated in the middle of the night. When you lie awake, you only think of bad things. The trouble with death is that it sometimes wakes you up! I assume that this happens to other people; I haven’t done a survey.’
Your philosopher brother, Jonathan, is a significant and rather austere presence in the book. Your neatly ironic gloss on your agnosticism – ‘I don’t believe in God, but I miss him’ – he describes as ‘soppy’.
‘As you will have concluded, my brother is a somewhat unusual person. His gear [Jonathan wears eighteenth-century dress] doesn’t look so strange in Oxford [where he taught for 25 years] because a certain amount of eccentricity is licensed there, but if he walked past this pub on the way up from Tufnell Park station… Well, it would be either brave or foolhardy. I started writing the book not quite sure of it in my head and not sure of what the mix between memoir and essay would be. I’d already started asking Jonathan questions by email – he lives in France now – and his answers were quite… provoking, and appetising. Probably not at a conscious level, I thought there was something in the exchange which could lead to a narrative theme. So I sent him the first 20 pages and said, “Look, this is the sort of book I’m writing and I think you ought to see it at this stage and please make corrections.” He said he’d enjoyed it. And then he said two things. One: “I don’t mind what you say about me.” Two: “If your memory conflicts with mine, go with yours because it’s probably better than mine.” I thought that was extraordinary, for someone who’s a participant in the book and widely quoted. He did object strongly to one thing, which was when I quoted him as using the verb “to parent”. Reading the proofs, he refused to believe he’d used such a verb. He thinks “to parent” is crappy and voguish. So it was changed.’
It might be hard for some readers to believe that you were always regarded as the less clever brother.
‘Well, I was. I didn’t get as good marks at school, which is the way that it was tested. No, my brother is very clever. He once did a radio programme in a series called English Eccentrics. It was on Radio 3 or 4 about eight years ago. He was asked if he was clever and he said, “Well, there are only two responses to that. You either take the line of false modesty or the line of false arrogance. But it is true that when I’m in a room, I always feel like I’m the cleverest person there.” [Laughs] Now, I never feel that.’
Even when you know it must be true?
‘I don’t think in those terms. I don’t think…’
…that cleverness is so easily quantifiable?
‘No. I’m not an academic. I don’t grade people, so I don’t think in the same terms as someone like AL Rowse [notoriously arrogant historian] who always used to say “Third-class mind!” – an awful Oxfordism. As a novelist, you judge people by the richness of their experience and by their moral nature and intelligence rather than their cleverness.’
Your account of your relationship with your parents – especially your mother – is painfully honest. Did you agonise over the representation? And did this involve another conversation with your brother?
‘He didn’t question my right to talk about them or discuss them or put them in a book.’
I was thinking more about the specifics of the depiction. It would be your right to do whatever you liked with them.
‘Well, I don’t know. I only felt it was my right when they’d been dead as long as they had. I had this notion of writing a book about death which started “Let’s get this death thing straight” as long as 20 years ago. I never thought, when either of my parents died, “Right, I’m going to write about this.” But then I’m a slow-burn writer anyway. Things tend to have to compost down and I store things up without knowing that that’s what I’m doing. I did ask Jonathan if he thought I’d been unfair to our mother and he replied, interestingly and indeed philosophically, “Unkind perhaps, but not unfair.”’
Your last novel, ‘Arthur & George’, was a Richard & Judy bestseller. How did you find the experience?
‘I was only disappointed that I didn’t get to meet them. When you’re chosen you don’t meet them and you don’t get to sit on their sofa. You’re kept at arm’s length. I was taken up on Hampstead Heath and filmed for two hours on a freezing cold day. That was cut down into a five-minute interview. Then there was a discussion with Richard and Judy and they had a reading group and a star reader – Gail Porter, I think it was. My experience was you get to readers you wouldn’t otherwise get to. I’m a complete democrat in terms of who buys my books.’
What do you think readers who discovered you through ‘Arthur & George’ make of your new book?
‘My books are different one from another, so I expect readers who liked “Flaubert’s Parrot” were disappointed with the next one. But I was no more tempted to write another book like “Arthur & George” as I was to write “Tolstoy’s Dachsund” after “Flaubert’s Parrot”.’
‘Nothing to be Frightened of’ is published by Cape at £17.99
- Add your comment to this feature