Nothing To Be Frightened Of:
An Interview with Julian Barnes
Born in 1946, Julian Barnes is the author of two books of stories, three collections of essays, a translation of Alphonse Daudet’s In the Land of Pain (2002), and ten novels. These include Metroland (1980), Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), A History of the World in 10½ Chapters (1989), and most recently, Arthur and George (2005). In his latest work, an essayistic memoir entitled Nothing To Be Frightened Of (2008), Barnes considers the prospect of his own death with a terror unmitigated by religion, philosophy, or the musings of his literary ancestors.
How do you feel about your readers these days? There was a time when you seemed rather combative about the interest readers take in your life as well as in your work.
In the face of the reader’s interest in your life as well as in your books, you find yourself reacting in two ways. On the one hand, you adopt a high-minded Flaubertian position and maintain that only the art matters; on the other you react like an ordinary human being. I think the books ought to be enough—just as a piece of music ought to be enough, just as a painting ought to be enough. A work of art ought to explain itself: if it doesn’t, it fails. At the same time, I’m as interested as anyone else in artists’ and writers’ lives. I’m as gossipy as anyone else. So I understand that if people like your stuff they will quite often also want to know something about you.
In The Pedant in the Kitchen (2003) you wrote that ‘the best books persuade readers that do not even know the author that they are friends of his’.
Yes. One of the most important decisions you have to make when you’re starting a book concerns the relationship with the reader. You have to determine every time where you and your reader are to stand in relation to each other. In general I like the reader to be as close as possible.
What does that mean—to have the reader as close as possible?
This is how I visualize the relationship. There are some writers who go up to a lectern when they write—they stand at a podium and the reader is down there in the audience, and the writer tells the reader about life and what it consists of and what its truths are. By contrast, I like to think of the writer and the reader sitting together, not face to face, but side by side, looking out in the same direction, through something like a café window. And then in my scenario, the writer asks the reader ‘What do you think she’s like? He looks a bit odd, doesn’t he? Now why are they having a quarrel?’ The reader’s gaze runs parallel to the writer’s gaze—the writer is just a little bit ahead because he’s spotted these things first.
You once said that ‘a first-rate critic is always less important and less interesting than a second-rate writer. The critic’s job is, firstly, to explain, but secondly to celebrate rather than diminish.’ Has your attitude towards literary critics mellowed?
I wouldn’t say that I’ve mellowed. But I don’t think that that view is necessarily antagonistic. It’s quite hard to review novels and yet lots of people do it without much skill. I’ve reviewed hundreds of novels in my time and I think I’ve only ever written one review that I would reprint. It was a review of Philip Roth’s The Counterlife—which I think is his best book—and it took me three or four weeks to write. I think the only development in my thinking about critics—and I don’t think about them very much—is probably that I feel more kindly towards academic critics than I do towards newspaper critics. I regard newspaper critics as a hurdle of misunderstanding that the book has to overcome before it reaches its readers.
Do you loathe critics in advance of a book coming out?
I’m not as bad as Philip Roth, who used to live in both England and America, and used to leave whichever country had a book of his coming out. But I haven’t read a British review for around seven or eight years now.
Why is that?
It’s two things really. I’ve never read a review which made me a better writer—I’ve never read a review which pointed out something to me which made me write the next book in a different or better way. And I’m no better at taking criticism that I think is unfair, or at being rubbished—I don’t think you get any better at that. So you find yourself skimming reviews for words of praise and I think that’s a bit ignoble really.
One of your short stories, ‘Gnossienne,’ begins with the sentence: ‘Let me make it clear that I never attend literary conferences.’ There’s a conference being held on the topic of ‘Julian Barnes and the European tradition’ in June at Liverpool Hope University, isn’t there? Are you going along?
Yes, there is. And yes, I am. I’m not going to attend the conference in the sense of sitting through the papers. I’m going along partly because a number of good friends will be there, and also because I think that if people are coming from all over the world to a conference in my country about me, the least I can do is to actually turn up, to be available for an interview and to answer any questions that might arise. That seems a sort of courtesy call.
You said once that knowing that your books are studied in schools and universities registers with you like an intimation of death...
Yes, it does. When people started studying me I did feel—and I still do feel to some extent—like saying, ‘Hang on… I haven’t finished yet—don’t make generalizations about my work while I’m still writing.’ And there’s another reason why I worry about becoming a ‘set text’. I remember what it’s like to be at school and to be made to read the wrong writer at the wrong time—how you can be put off a writer for life. In an ideal world, readers would come to your books through some mysterious system of traction, some sixth sense. It makes me very anxious to think that a potential reader might be put off by being forced to study me.
You recently translated and edited a notebook in which Alphonse Daudet (1840-1897) chronicled his slow, painful, syphilitic decline (In the Land of Pain, 2002). How did that come about?
I came across Daudet’s notebook in the Taylorian Library in Oxford while researching Flaubert’s Parrot. I remember thinking, ‘This is wonderful.’ Then one day I found myself about to write one of those columns for the TLS which say, ‘Here’s something brilliant that’s never been translated—someone should do it.’ Then I thought, ‘Why don’t you do it?’ It was very difficult, but I enjoyed it. It took a very long time. I think good translation probably takes longer than the original writing.
Let’s talk about your latest book, Nothing To Be Frightened Of. In the book you describe yourself as agnostic, yet at several points you come across sounding more atheistic than agnostic. You concede, for instance, that in some cases religion may do no harm, ‘except for not being true’; elsewhere you describe religion as a ‘beautiful lie’.
I think I’m probably an atheist but I’m always alarmed by dogma and I think atheism can be a dogma as much as anything else. I don’t think I’m smart enough to know that there isn’t a god.
You don’t think that belief in god is just a silly idea?
I think it’s a rather nice idea. But I haven’t come across any evidence that there is any organising body out there. Indeed there are many things about the nature of human life which seem to me to argue strongly against the existence of a god. Think of Burma [being struck by Cyclone Nargis]. How many of these poor Burmese people are going be wondering, ‘Maybe there isn’t a god after all, maybe Buddha isn’t all that loving if disasters such as these can happen?’
The debate about religion and the value of atheism has recently flared up among British intellectuals. Did you make a deliberate choice to position yourself as more liberal in your statements than, say, Dawkins, Hitchens, Amis, Grayling?
It’s more that while I think institutional religions have done quite a lot of damage as well as some good, I don’t despise the religious instinct, which most human beings, in most societies, have. If you’re a novelist, your job is to understand other human beings and to represent them faithfully and truly; and for many people the religious instinct is a very central part of being a human being. However, in the face of militant Islam or fundamentalist Christianity, it’s very good that there is a powerful, intellectually coherent, atheist lobby. But I don’t go along with despising people because they are so weak as to need to believe in an afterlife. ‘Atheism is aristocratic,’ as Robespierre put it.
Dawkins features a lot in Nothing To Be Frightened Of as your archetypal ‘Category One Atheist’—but it’s not entirely clear whether you endorse him or not.
I admire what he’s written and I read him with great pleasure. I think he’s a very necessary person on the scene. At some point I’ve found myself wondering how he will die—whether he can be as seemingly blithe as he is about saying ‘when I’m dying I just want life to be taken out of me as if it were an appendix.’ I wonder whether one really can feel like that about one’s own death. I find it very perplexing that people aren’t more upset at the thought of their own extinction.
Much of your book concerns your fear of death. Do you harbour any other emotions about death?
Yes. I hate it too. But the trouble with combining emotions is that one risks personifying death too much. You mustn’t turn death into a metaphor, a guy with a scythe. Death isn’t the single stalking figure that cuts you down. Death is just a process. It’s just like some terrible, heartless, bland bureaucracy at work, busily fulfilling its quota, as it always does. To personify death with too many grades of emotion is to do it too much honour.
You say in the book that you sometimes find life ‘an overrated way of spending time’. Would you describe yourself as desperate?
No. I would say that I’m a cheerful pessimist.
You say that you’re not a confessional writer, but write that ‘my fear of death has become an essential part of me’—surely the admission of such a preoccupation is confessional?
I suppose it is. I don’t think of the book as confessional because I think of confessional literature as literature that is written to get something off your chest. I don’t believe in therapeuto-autobiographical theory at all. I think of this book as an exercise in examining myself as a case and as an answer to a question: at this point in time, what does it mean not to believe in anything and yet not be reconciled to the notion that you’re going to die?
Is the book in part an injunction to people to talk about death more?
Yes. I think we don’t talk about death enough these days. It’s partly because we live longer—and expect to live longer—and partly because death has gone out of the house. We don’t sit at people’s bedsides any more, or if we do, we do so in hospitals. We hand over dying and death to professionals who tell us what to do and how to behave and where to turn up. They don’t tell us how grief is going to work though—they’re not very good at that.
You say of the artists you admire most, a group that includes Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) and Jules Renard (1864-1910), that ‘they are my daily companions but also my ancestors. They are my true bloodline.’ In Something to Declare (2002), you insisted that ‘Not Shutting Up About Flaubert is a necessary pleasure.’ In Nothing To Be Frightened Of Jules Renard takes centre-stage, grabbing the limelight from Flaubert. Did part of you think that some readers might have had enough of Flaubert and that you should introduce a new literary figure?
No. It was more that Flaubert didn’t have much more to say about death than what I used in the book. I mean… there might have been something of what you say in it too. I think you’re right actually. I think that when Flaubert came into one draft, I did picture my reader thinking, ‘oh no, here he is going on about Flaubert all over again.’ But I don’t think I bumped up Renard’s contribution to an unfair degree. He writes about death in a way that is closer to the way in which I feel about it, as Daudet also does: they look at death in the same register as everything else in life, whereas Flaubert sometimes seems to me to be striving for something slightly heroic when it comes to death.
Larkin comes up a lot. He’s different from your other literary protagonists—died relatively recently, English, a poet…
He’s my favourite poet of the last half of the twentieth century. When I first read him I remember thinking instantly ‘Ha! I’ve found a new person who speaks to me directly and intimately and tells the truth.’ I re-read him a lot.
Would you call Flaubert a literary father?
I think he’s a profound and iconic figure in my writing life. Do I think he’s actually influenced the way I write fiction? No. Because he’s French. And because he’s dead. And because he’s more than a hundred years away now. But in terms of how you should conduct yourself as a writer and the high ambition and ideals you should have if you set up as a writer? Yes, definitely.
Is there anything in your writing that you would say has been shaped by Flaubert?
I don’t know because so many things go into the mix, and it’s impossible to tell to what extent a Flaubertian attribute is also intrinsically one of your own. Take irony. I’ve always been an ironic person. You don’t need Flaubert to inspire or authorise irony.
You see yourself as an ironist and you see Flaubert as an ironist. In Nothing To Be Frightened Of death and god enter as ironists as well. What is it that you value so highly about irony?
It’s a way of saying things aren’t as they seem. It gives you X-ray vision. It allows you to see round the back of things. It responds to the fact that reality isn’t single-natured. It allows you two responses to the complexity of reality. It makes it possible to be serious and jokey at the same time. It’s the ‘snorkel of sanity’ as I think I described it in Flaubert's Parrot. Is it ‘the devil’s mark,’ my protagonist wonders, or ‘the snorkel of sanity’? That is to say: does it curse you or does it save you? Renard puts it brilliantly: ‘Irony doesn’t dry up the grass, it only burns off the weeds.’
Julian Barnes’s Nothing To Be Frightened Of was published by Jonathan Cape in March 2008. For more information see www.julianbarnes.com.