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Julian Barnes

“She, like Sherwin Nuland, sees life as a narrative. Dying, which is not part of death but part of life, is the conclusion to that narrative, and the time preceding death is our last opportunity to find meaning in the story that is about to end. Perhaps because my professional days are spent considering what is narrative and what isn’t, I resist this line of thought. Lessing described history as putting accidents in order, and a human life strikes me as a reduced version of this: a span of consciousness during which certain things happen, some predictable, others not; where certain patterns repeat themselves, where the operations of chance and what we may as well for the moment call free will interact; where children on the whole grow up to bury their parents, and become parents in their turn; where, if we are lucky, we find someone to love, and with them a way to live, or, if not, a different way to live; where we do our work, take our pleasure, and watch history advance by a tiny cog or two. But this does not in my book constitute a narrative. Or, to adjust: it may be a narrative, but it doesn’t feel like one to me.

So if, as we approach death and look back on our lives, “we understand our narrative” and stamp a final meaning upon it, I suspect we are doing little more than confabulation: processing strange, incomprehensible, contradictory input into some kind, any kind, of believable story — but believable mainly to ourselves. I do not object to this atavistic need for narrative — not least since it is how I make my living — but I am suspicious of it. I would expect a dying person to be an unreliable narrator, because what is useful to us generally conflicts with what is true, and what is useful at that time is a sense of having lived to some purpose, and according to some comprehensible plot.”


From Julian Barnes’s incredible meditation on death, Nothing to Be Frightened Of. I’m telling you right now: buy this book.