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Julian Barnes“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, worship our god (or not), 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.

My mother, whenever exasperated by the non-arrival or malfeasance of some goofy handyman or cack-handed service engineer, would remark that she could ‘write a book’ about her experiences with workmen. So she could have done; and how very dull it would have been. It might have contained anecdotes, scenelets, character portraits, satire, even levity; but this would not add up to narrative. And so it is with our lives: one damn thing after another—a gutter replaced, a washing machine fixed—rather than a story…”

Julian Barnes, writing in his memoir about mortality Nothing to Be Frightened Of.

“Experience is the only thing we share equally, and everyone senses this… I am a novelist, trained to use experience for other ends. Why should I tell the story of my life?

I do it because I feel the same stirrings that everyone else feels. I want to set the record straight… The trouble with life (the novelist will feel) is its amorphousness, its ridiculous fluidity. Look at it: thinly plotted, largely themeless, sentimental and ineluctibly trite. The dialogue is poor, or at least violently uneven. The twists are either predictable or sensationalist. And it’s always the same beginning; and the same ending … My organisational principles, therefore, derive from an inner urgency, and from the novelist’s addiction to seeing parallels and making connections.”

Martin Amis, in a section from the introductory chapter of his memoir Experience.

Martin Amis


There’s something spurious about the metaphors we use as shorthands for life. Unsolicited advice-givers and glib bumper stickers will tell you life’s a race. It’s a game. A dance. A journey. A beach.

So could life also be a narrative?

As with other such comparisons, this seems to me to be a half-baked utterance of pseudo-philosophy – an indicator not of life’s simplicity or our grand comprehension, but of our simplicity and of life’s fundamental opaqueness. Life is a ______. There have been forests felled to produce libraries to try in vain to fill in this blank; still we want a noun. Barnes hits on le mot juste when he calls this impulse atavistic. It’s the same reason we call God a Father or a Shepard: without these metaphors we are as stupefied as children.

Though as quick fixes for men with metaphysical headaches, these metaphors do serve to obscure as much as clarify. In a stunning utterance scrawled in his journal in 1897, Jules Renard reprimanded himself at the moment of his father’s death. “I do not reproach myself for not having loved him enough,” Renard lamented, “I do reproach myself for not having understood him.” So too I fear will be our assessments as we look back on lives lived as jauntily as if they were dances: enjoyable, sure, but what kind of a party was it?

“I don’t know why we are here, but I’m pretty sure that it is not in order to enjoy ourselves” was the response Wittgenstein gave to Renard’s quandary. Easy for a suicidal genius to say, but what about for the rest of us? Implicit in Wittgenstein is the assumption that we are here to discover truth about ourselves and the world before we leave it; after all, apart from the transcendental, what other “why” could we have? But notice Wittgenstein’s initial qualifier. That trepidation is compacted into the paragraphs from Barnes and Amis above, and maybe it’s actually the essential clause. Perhaps, next time you hear someone say “life’s a _____,” the proper response is to shrug and simply repeat that mad Austrian’s first three words.