Stuff I’m Reading: Fun New Books About Death by Jose Saramago and Julian Barnes

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10/27/2008 10:55 AM |

“The following day, no one died,” begins Jose Saramago’s Death with Interruptions; it’s a thought experiment, as his books are often described, but he maybe doesn’t take his conceit seriously enough.

When we fantasize about life eternal, we do so on our own terms — an infinite reserve of good health to go along with immortality is after all no more or less improbable than ever more gradations of deathless decrepitude, which is how Saramago renders it. But by abandoning the promise of his premise, Saramago can focus instead on the petty bureaucratic squabbling of the government ministries, religious hierarchy, healthcare industries and criminal class of the country afflicted (a nameless country, landlocked but otherwise resembling Saramago’s Portugal). What fools these mortals be, thinks Saramago, as familiar shortsighted self-interested patterns of problem-solving are carried out by the social apparatuses. The satire is toothless, because most of what Saramago relates feels like it could be happening in response to anything.

This is also partly to due with Saramago’s style, which can be sagacious but is here merely distanced, with his customary ironical and colloquial self-questioning and amused and windy winding sentences, which I’d describe in more specific detail except that James Wood does that so well in his New Yorker piece on the book, so you should just read him on the subject. (Death with Interruptions — in which the character of death is pointedly compared to Saramago’s writing style also suggests Wood was on to something, in How Fiction Works, when he talked about Saramago’s The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis as being partly a book about the author as being as a god.)

The book gets more interesting about 100 pages in, when Saramago abandons his dead-end premise for another one: death will resume her work (death is a character; she is granted abilities that are convenient for the sake of the story, since after all the storyteller makes the rules of the world of the story), but now giving everyone a week’s notice to get their affairs in order. Here, Saramago’s imagination must work on a more penetrating, personal level, and it does. Wood is also good about the last section of the book, in which death becomes obsessed with a middle-aged cellist who, somehow (because the story demands it be so) deflects her powers — but I don’t think he goes far enough in explicating how, in Saramago’s view (especially with the ending), it’s not just imagination but specifically art which creates life by giving it meaning, and so triumphs over death. In this, Death with Interruptions — a slender, often frustratingly trivial book with moments of insight, clarity and eloquence — is unmistakably the work of an 80-something atheist.

Julian Barnes writes like a 60-something atheist throughout Nothing to Be Frightened Of, but he comes to distrust the idea of immortality through art, along most other consolations. It’s not exactly a heartening book, this family memoir and meditation on fear of death, but there’s something weirdly cathartic about the way Barnes hits on pretty much every perfectly rational cause for abject fucking terror, not just religion but memory and art and evolutionary biology.

The friends, family members and writers (“most of them dead, and quite a few of them French”) that Barnes consults give the book a satisfying breadth — it’s an inherently solipsistic project, but so is most first-person nonfiction, the key is the writer’s ability to connect his own consciousness to the wider world, and to the reader’s.

The book is ultimately quite moving for the ways in which Barnes lingers on memory — not simply basking in flashbacks but relating a family story, recognizing its constructedness and transience and incompleteness, and carrying on with it anyway, because such things are what we have. (And though Barnes distrusts pathos, the book gained a fair amount of it as I was reading it: his wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh, died of a recently diagnosed brain tumor last Monday.) He’s also witty and skeptical; the book won’t make you feel better about death’s inevitability and time’s merciless passage, but if you already feel as Barnes does about death, it’ll help you to feel bad better, which is no small thing.