Life’s a bichon, and then you die.
Elegant and eloquent, Barnes (Arthur & George, 2006, etc.) arrives a touch belatedly on a well-worked scene: namely, English writers pondering and arguing the existence or nonexistence of God. Barnes inclines toward the golden mean: “I don’t believe in God,” he writes, “but I miss Him.” He was once more inclined to the atheism of Hitchens, Dawkins et al., but now, 62 years on, he admits to less certainty and “more awareness of ignorance,” to say nothing of a growing understanding that the good times on this side of the grass are finite. On that point, one of this slim memoir’s finest moments is a vignette of just a couple of paragraphs about disposing of his recently deceased parents’ stuff, sending some of it off to the consignment shop, some to the recycling center and shamefacedly tossing the rest and feeling a little queasy in the bargain, “as if I had buried my parents in a paper bag rather than a proper coffin.” All this musing on death and the divine makes Pascal’s wager an ever more attractive proposition, even if Barnes readily recognizes that one of the most powerful impulses for religion is the knowledge—and consequent dread—of death, the great divide in life being between those who fear the end and those who do not. Rambling along amiably, the author stops to look in on some famous last words—Hegel’s, for one, who said before expiring, “Only one man ever understood me, and he didn’t understand me.” Barnes also composes a lovely, oh-so-English self-effacing obituary for himself, confessing to a love of love, friendship, books and the wine bottle. He ends with a meditation on how that obituary might be occasioned, though the reader will hope that he proves right in reckoning himself only three-fourths of the way down the walk toward the light.
Gentle and lucid—a welcome change from the polemical tone of so many books on the matter (or antimatter, if you like) of the big guy upstairs.