It's not a promising premise for a book: one man's fear of death. Yet Barnes' wit and learning kept me turning pages, nodding and chuckling. The jibes are at himself; he admits to feeling competitive about the age he first woke to death-awareness (a moment Charles du Bos called le réveil mortel): thirteen or fourteen to his friend G.‘s ridiculously early age of four “(four! you bastard!)”. Throughout the book, Barnes contrasts his own approach as a novelist to questions about death and what comfort may be derived from various sources with those of his brother who is a philosopher. Their paths diverged at an early age, which Barnes attributes to his brother being bottle-fed, unlike himself. He goes on to turn this assumption, as with others in this fascinating book, on its head, pulling it apart to try to discover the truth of the matter.
Barnes also looks at how other novelists, philosophers, composers, and so on who are brooders about death make of these questions. He wonders if we would wish to be conscious during our dying, citing Roy Porter who did “‘Because, you know, you'd just be missing out on something otherwise.'” Jules Renard, whom Barnes calls “one of my dead, French, non-blood relatives”, famous for a novel set in his native village of Chitry, experienced three deaths in the space of twelve years: his father's suicide, his brother's sudden collapse while at work, and his mother's drowning in a well, which may have been an accident or another suicide. At his brother's gravesite, Renard notices a fat worm on the edge of the grave seeming to be celebrating. He says, “‘All I feel is a kind of anger at death and its imbecile tricks.'”
That worm returns near the end of the book as Barnes stands over the Renard family grave. This return to certain images and ideas helps to tie together what is essentially a long essay. Barnes hews closely to his main idea—how can we come to terms with our inevitable end?—but the little excursions are what make the book delightful. At one point, he visits the graves of other non-blood relatives. In a cemetery in Deauville, he uses his rental car keys to clear the lichen from the gravestone, but the spacing of the letters is a bit odd, so the name he actually reveals is FORD MAD OXFORD. His graveyard visits lead Barnes to meditate about some reader perhaps cleaning Barnes's own tombstone one day, and to examine what comfort may be drawn from the ongoing life of books, one's creations. Cold comfort, he concludes, citing once-famous authors who have fallen out of fashion and the likely demise of physical books in our online world. He deals similarly with other proposed panaceas: religion, release from pain, the need to make room for others, children and genetic immortality, the famous bird from medieval poetry that flies into a lighted hall and then out of it again.
Barnes is amusing on the subject of last words, admiringly citing an otherwise undistinguished teacher who had decided to say simply, “Damn!” However, he goes on to dash cold water on the most gloriously planned exit lines by describing the reality of the person's final hours. I recently said of a friend that he made a good death, meaning that on his last day he displayed a dignity and courage I'd not expected from him, or from anyone for that matter. In his shoes, or hospital gown rather, I'd have been curled up against the bed's bars howling.
Fear of death—my own death—has never absorbed much of my attention. I've certainly worried about running out of time to do the things I want to do. And feared the possibility of dementia. But a long time ago, before I was even out of my teens and long before starting to study Eastern religions, I made the decision to live every day and as a result don't feel that I've missed out on anything.
Even without sharing Barnes's preoccupation, though, I found the book fascinating enough to tear through it in just a few days. The primary ideas I will take away from this book are his final remarks on narrative and memory.