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January 16, 2009

Barnes, Saramago weigh the pros and cons of the beyond

A photograph of Julian Barnes stares out from the cover of Nothing to Be Frightened Of. His face is half-shadowed and unsmiling, as if directly confronting that terrifying nothingness with which his unorthodox memoir grapples. Barnes, an aging agnostic, is preoccupied by the fear of death. He thinks of it while writing, while watching soccer matches, while cooking; he wakes in the night from dreams of annihilation. But death is more than a vivid distraction for Barnes: In Nothing to Be Frightened Of, it is a foil to his life, his relationships, and his intellectual identity.

Barnes’s book is no typical memoir, progressing by faithful chronology and resolving into a coherent image of its author. It is an unapologetically digressive work. Most of what we learn about Barnes arises indirectly, filtered through his reactions to the stories he relates. The book’s diffuse and erudite approach suits Barnes’s character, which he conveys with a skillfully light touch.

When he does speak about his own life, he admits easily that his memories are faulty. He and his brother, a philosopher who deems Barnes’s worries “soppy,” often disagree about basic facts from their childhood. While his brother is vexed by this, Barnes revels in it, preferring imaginative truth and the sense of a coherent self-narrative to historical accuracy.

He approaches the problem of death doggedly, from many different angles, though with marked emphasis on the opinions of dead French authors, quoting poets, philosophers, composers, theologians, and scientists on the subject, relating anecdotes both humorous and sobering. Faced with the prospect of an incomprehensible and implacable death, Barnes digs in his own heels, remaining stubbornly unconsoled by any attempts to reconcile himself with his mortality.

Barnes admits early on that he is a philosophical amateur, and it shows; though always earnest and sensible, his meditations are occasionally naïve and almost childishly obstinate. The reader is usually interested and often delighted by his small, learned stories, but as the parade of characters wears on, they begin to seem repetitive, even slightly tiresome.

As the details blur, Barnes comes into focus, though indirectly. He emerges as a consummate writer whose erudition, though ample, is overshadowed by his unaffected humanity. He describes his fears and weaknesses with remarkable poise, managing to seem neither nostalgically self-absorbed nor blandly detached.

By the book’s end, the reader is left with a pleasant variety of literary trivia and more importantly, a vivid, tender affection for Barnes. Grim though the photograph on the cover may be, we are confident that we know exactly the small smile with which he must deliver his wry, touching judgments.

 

In the lushly imaginative novel Death with Interruptions, 1998 Nobel Prize winner José Saramago explores the same question that preoccupies Barnes: What would happen if death stopped? At the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Day in an unnamed country, precisely this happens. Victims of drunk-driving accidents and fatal illnesses remain unaccountably alive long after doctors have given up on them. Gradually, the country’s citizens realize that, somehow, death has ceased.

This realization does not, as Barnes and readers might expect, occasion a period of national jubilation, even temporarily. Rather, the country’s citizens are left baffled. Social institutions struggle to cope with the new way of life. Hospitals are overrun with patients who will never recover, undertakers and life insurance companies go out of business, and the church searches for a way to maintain its relevance without the prospect of resurrection. It becomes clear that the suspension of death solves none of humanity’s problems.

The notion that eternal life would create practical difficulties is not, of course, original. Although Saramago treats these logistical problems in a fresh and lyrical way, the creative genius of his novel lies rather in its portrayal of intellectual and emotional responses to the cessation of death. Having been granted one of humankind’s greatest historical wishes, the country’s citizens do not know how to proceed. Death may be fundamentally incomprehensible, but so, as it turns out, is its absence.

When the problem of death disappears, the problem of interminable aging takes its place; when death is eventually reinstated, with a one-week warning period to eliminate the old uncertainty, a generalized anxiety takes hold. Journalists, government officials, mafia bosses, and families fumble unconvincingly for new ways to fulfill their roles under changed circumstances, even as their old superstitions and prejudices remain unexamined.

Saramago’s prose, deftly rendered into English by Margaret Jull Costa, is thick with clichéd turns of phrase that convey the essential, unrecognized confusions that characterize human interaction. Characters constantly talk past each other, misunderstanding one another without realizing they are doing so. Our helpless bewilderment in the face of the unknown that Barnes attributes to the awareness of death is not, in Saramago’s account, a result of our mortality; it is a basic feature of our culture and our thought. There is a sense of ponderous, institutionalized inertia with which death is, unexpectedly, not contrasted but accommodated.

Death With Interruptions is something between an allegory and a character study of an abstraction. Saramago personifies death (lowercased, scrupulously and significantly) as a young woman, beautiful and strange. As a character, she is imperfect, awkwardly hurtful, impetuous, and quick to anger. Though distinct from the humans who populate the novel’s pages, she is on equal footing with them in two senses. First, none of the characters have names, referred to only by their roles (prime minister, cellist, etc.). And second, they are all subject to similar mishaps. Their plans are thwarted, their conversations go awry, and they fall, unwillingly, in love. Despite its high conceits, Saramago’s unlikely premise engenders a remarkably poignant and compelling romance.

The contemplation of death, admittedly, inspires little optimism. Neither Barnes nor Saramago suggests that there is a way out of our reluctant, disoriented plight. Nonetheless, as these books amply demonstrate, there is a great deal of pleasure to be had while we’re waiting.