“Memory is identity, I have believed this since — oh, since I can remember. You are what you have done; what you have done is in your memory; what you remember defines who you are; when you forget your life you cease to be, even before your death. I once spent many years failing to save a friend from a long alcoholic decline. I watched her, from close at hand, lose her short-term memory, and then her long-term, and with them most of everything in between. It was a terrifying example of what Lawrence Durrell in a poem called ‘the slow disgracing of the mind’: the mind’s fall from grace. And with that fall — the loss of specific and general memories being patched over by absurd feats of fabulation, as the mind reassured itself and her but no one else — there was a comparable fall for those who knew and loved her. We were trying to hold on to our memories of her — and thus, quite simply, to her — telling ourselves that ‘she’ was still there, clouded over but occasionally visible in sudden moments of truth and clarity. Protestingly, I would repeat, in an attempt to convince myself as much as those I was addressing, ‘She’s just the same underneath.’ Later I realized that I had always been fooling myself, and the ‘underneath’ was being — had been — destroyed at the same rate as the visible surface. She had gone, was off in a world that convinced only herself — except that, from her panic, it was clear that such conviction was only occasional. Identity is memory, I told myself; memory is identity.”
From Nothing to Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes.
In looking back over the past twelve months, I’m certain that this is, for me, the book of 2012. I’ve read it several times since January, and every return to the text has — like a massive painting or multi-layered movie — brought forth something previously unseen. With each revisit to its pages, you learn something else and feel something new in Nothing to Be Frightened Of. As in the excerpt above, Barnes crafts sentences of the utmost elegance, which form paragraphs brimming with power and poignancy. But the book isn’t all serious. “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him” is the opening sentence of the text, signaling a voice which is as intense as it is ironic, as playful as it is pokerfaced. In his New York Times review of Nothing to Be Frightened Of, Garrison Keillor called it, “a deep seismic tremor of a book,” and that’s what it is: a volume that thunders across your mind, leaving lingering ideas and a lasting impression for days after you put it down.
Read other excerpts from Barnes’s book here: