Well, it was Dead Writers Weekend around here and it ended last night as I read John Updike on John Cheever’s biography in The New Yorker (March 9). Disconcerting: Updike’s voice sounded so very alive! And writing about Cheever, who was such a big part of my growing-up years that I still can’t believe he’s dead… And then in the same issue, a profile of David Foster Wallace who taught some of Will’s friends at Pomona.
This might have been strange enough, but it would have made less of an impression if I hadn’t also been reading Barnes’ Nothing to Be Frightened Of. He’s talking about death, of course.
I think about death a lot. There is apparently a French term for this, le réveil mortel, which Barnes translates as “the wake-up call of death.” Those of us who have received the call are aware that our days are numbered. If Barnes had a Facebook page, he would be a fan of le réveil. But he’s not close-minded: he considers the option, which is simply dropping dead without ever acknowledging that death is on the way. That would not be his choice: “For me, death is the one appalling fact which defines life; unless you are constantly aware of it, you cannot begin to understand what life is about…” And mind you, he’s not just talking about the death of our individual bodies, for Barnes is a somewhat regretful atheist. (“I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him.”) He’s also facing up to the death of whatever it was that made us individuals, and — as if that weren’t enough — the death of the human race.
A lot of this is so abstract that my mind just slithers away from it. But Barnes is so clever, so humane, such a good writer that I relished the book. It is also, necessarily, about his life, including a funny and problematic family (whose isn’t?) and an enviable career. He even spends a page facing up to the notion of his last reader.
And of course, we don’t just die: we die under circumstances that we don’t control. Barnes’ mother had a stroke and was incapacitated to her profound and barely expressible frustration. We may lose whatever it is that makes us us (memory? character?) long before we draw that last breath.
So this Updike review of Cheever was cheering, in a somewhat morbid way. Apparently Updike stayed cogent to the end, and very much wanted to review this new biography of his old acquaintance and colleague. (He wasn’t thrilled by it.) We should all be so lucky.