Friday, April 24, 2009
Julian Barnes - Nothing to Be Frightened of
The reviews for NTBFO were marvellous, I generally enjoy Julian Barnes in both his Barnes and Kavanagh guises, and I loved his last novel, Arthur & George, about the involvement of Arthur Conan Doyle in the trial of an Anglo-Indian youth falsely accused and convicted of mutilating livestock. Barnes writes with extreme clarity and perception of both his protagonists and George Edalji is particularly interestingly depicted, or at least to me, as a fellow half-sub-Continental. So I was well set up for NTBFO. I am still surprised by how moving and vivid and plain funny it is. Of course, it is erudite, littered with references and allusions to other great writers and also to perhaps greater thinkers, but it is also refreshingly full of the conundrum that beats at the heart of every really interesting book, which is our inability to know another's heart. Barnes writes about his family, and in particular his mother and his philosopher brother in lucid prose, and writes most perceptively about the impossibility of really getting to the heart of a character unless that character is fictional.
In exploring this impossibility, he touches on the perpetual attractions of fiction, from our Biblical heritage through Beowulf and the Wanderer, Chaucer's vivid pilgrims and Shakespeare's shining gallery of individuals. The best books achieve exactly what life does, which is to expose to us the quirks and twists and truths of human experience and nature, while preserving their mystery. We can never definitively know why Iago is so malevolent, why Viola is so sane and sage, how Hermione can forgive Leontes, we feel that these are not simply characters, but people. Dorothea's insistence on marrying Casaubon, Lady Dedlock's inner workings, Guy Crouchback's pain, when I think of these, I cannot believe that narrative will ever perish. Ultimately, the best stories, the ones that will go on and on for ever refreshing the parts no other artform can reach, will always be written down, shared, discussed, loved because they are full of people, and consequently, of radiance.
Curious to be reminded of this in a book about death - but sadder still to think that Barnes has been so closely touched in the last six months by death. The publication of the book was too closely followed by the death of Barnes's wife (and agent), Pat Kavanagh. Reading the book and knowing this makes his words all the more poignant. I am not sure he could have written with the same élan if he had had to write this book after October 2008. I am also relieved that it was written at all. Full of wisdom, light of touch, elegantly conceived and constructed, Nothing to Be Frightened Of is a wonderful, enriching book.