….but I miss Him’. So begins Julian Barnes’ recent book ‘Nothing to be Afraid Of’ which I am now reading. Influenced by his admiration for the French pastoral writer Jules Renard, the book is an uncompromising look at the inevitability of death, a subject which in these postings we have evaded until now. Barnes insists that his book is not an autobiography but instead a tapestry of memory and reflection with constant references to his immediate family and in particular his older brother, and always with the recurrent theme of his own attitude to death.
The brothers talk to each other about their shared experiences from earliest days. When you are young, Barnes says, memory is an immediate experience, but as an adult we are affected by approximation, fluidity and doubt. When we are older we start to recall lost segments of childhood which become more vivid than those of our middle years. Its an experience which I recognise as my own.
Julian Barnes says that he has a fear of death and insists that it’s a rational fear whereas when people believed in God (he assumes no one still does), at least you could ‘negotiate’ death.
God could be moved from being the Vengeful One to the Infinitely Merciful One. You can’t do the same with death. ‘Death can’t be talked down, or parlayed into anything; it simply declines to come to the negotiating table…it is impervious to insult, complaint or condescension., death never lets you down, remains on call seven days a week, and is happy to work three consecutive eight-hour shifts’.
Barnes maintains –as far as I have read – this light, ironic, teasing style, and yet behind the mask, there seems to be a real anxiety about an ending to his life compared to the certainty which he assumes people of faith possess. As you get older. this counterpoint between personal faith and facing the ultimate end to your life becomes inescapable.
I am a bereavement counsellor. Being with people who find it hard to adjust to the death of a loved one, I can’t escape from thinking at the back of my mind, about my own.
I have been trying to be honest with myself. Where I am fearful – or apprehensive – is the manner of my death. Like everyone else I don’t want my life to end with a whimper or in great pain or in mental confusion. I want it to be tidy and conclusive, an end which marks – for me – an interesting life where there was work to be done, people to love and to be loved by, and a community of faith to belong to. But of course the ending can’t be arranged, but an acceptance of its inevitability can. And I think – I may be kidding myself – I am fairly calm about that.