The title is, of course, ironic. This is a meditation on death, and Barnes is very frightened of it. He is afraid of suffering, of senility, and above all of obliteration ("NOTHING to be frightened of"). He is writing just as he turns sixty, so although he is not yet old he can envisage old age. He doesn't look forward to this with much more enthusiasm than he feels for death itself.
The book is composed of a number of interwoven strands. There are, of course, Barnes's own reflections on death. There are portraits of his parents, both non-believers. They are depicted without sentiment; he loved his father, though inarticulately, but for his mother he could feel only 'irritated fondness'. His elder brother, a somewhat eccentric philosopher, also figures a good deal.
There are, naturally, literary strands as well, especially those supplied by nineteenth-century French writers. And there are comments on death and on religion by friends, who are identified only by initials. This makes the book something like a roman à clef, inviting the reader to take part in a guessing game. I could manage only a couple. "G.", a philosopher, I think must be Galen Strawson, since his quoted view of free will is exactly what I have found in his writings. And the unnamed (not even an initial) "specialist on consciousness" speaking on the radio sounds like Susan Blackmore.
Although Barnes has never been a believer, he is now more agnostic than atheist; like many of us, he oscillates gently between the two. "If I called myself an atheist at twenty, and an agnostic at fifty and sixty, it isn't because I have acquired more knowledge in the meantime: just more awareness of ignorance. How can we be sure that we know enough to know?" Though he is not religious, Barnes feels the absence of religion. "Because it was a supreme fiction, and it is normal to feel bereft in closing a great novel."
Barnes tells us that this is not meant to be an autobiography, and that is true, although we do learn a certain amount about the author from carefully placed remarks here and there. In some ways this is better than straightforward autobiography—it is autobiography with the boring bits missed out. It shows us how a cultured, sceptical, and urbane mind at the beginning of the twenty-first century responds to the knowledge of its coming end without the comfort of religion. To a considerable extent, while reading, I was reminded of Montaigne, whom he cites—which is indeed high praise. The writing is self-conscious in the best sense of that phrase.
Definitely a book to keep and reread, then. There are no chapter headings, so no list of contents, and of course no index. This is doubtless because it is meant to be read and taken in as a whole, which I'm sure is right; but I can't help wishing it was possible to look up particular passages and discussions of ideas that I found particularly striking. I was reduced to using Postit notes for this—crass but unavoidable.
14 June 2008