An Interview with Julian Barnes

Appointment in Samarra

by Parul Sehgal — Publishers Weekly, 7/21/2008

In Nothing to Be Frightened Of, Julian Barnes offers philosophical musings on mortality.

Why did you choose to address questions about faith and mortality in this particular form?

This book came out of the period of time after my parents’ death and the effect that subconsciously had on me. I could have invented a character who tells the reader what he thinks about death—which would be rather like what I think about death—but what’s the point of that? I didn’t want any artifice.

In the book you write that your parents tore up their love letters and used the scraps to stuff a leather cushion—is a lack of sentimentality a Barnes family trait?

I’ve always been against sentimentality. You can tell a sadist or practical joker by their sentimentality; it’s often an excuse for not really feeling. It’s mascara. I’m sure Hitler was great with his little puppies (not that there is anything wrong in being kind to animals, I hasten to add).

How did you become the family archivist?

I have a collector’s nature, so it was partly that and partly through the lethargy of others. It’s not an enormous burden, you know; everything is in a drawer, two feet in each direction and five inches deep. Documentation can be a very inaccurate representation of human life. Someone was talking to me the other day about how after his uncle died, people got together and the only thing that they could remember about him was that he was able to eat a ginger biscuit in one chomp. And he said, “Imagine, a human life reduced to the ability to eat a ginger biscuit in a single chomp.”

You write that “pit-gazing for Flaubert induced not calm, but nervous exhaustion.” What has the process of pit-gazing done to you?

It clarified what I though about death, I suppose. It made me feel like at least I’ve got that down. Death is a given; it’s not something we can work our way towards or work our way out of. It shouldn’t be hidden from; it shouldn’t be made mysterious. It’s a trudging, everyday process, like a dutiful commissar from Soviet times fulfilling his work; that’s what death is like for me.

You write that religion and art can give life a certain seriousness. Does the contemplation of death have the same function for you?

I don’t think that contemplating death makes me think that life is more important. It makes me think that life is the only thing there is. It makes me think that I value life more highly because I know its going to end. On the other hand, if I compare the pleasure I get with the pleasure of a friend who doesn’t fear death, I can’t prove that mine is more or greater. You could say it’s a vain and pointless anxiety but that’s what I’m stuck with .

Read the PW review of Nothing to Be Frightened Of here

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