Dilettante's Diary

Feb 7/11

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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
July 18/13
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A Toast to 2012
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La Traviata: Met's Live HD Version
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How Fiction Works
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Sex for Saints
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Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2009
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Zen Wrapped In Karma Dipped In Chocolate
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CBC Radio -- "The New Two"
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Toronto Art Expo '09
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The Jesus Sayings
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Stand-outs of 2008
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Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 08
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Head to Head
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Notables of 2007
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Ring Psycho (Wagner on CBC Radio)
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Me In Manhattan
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Me and the Jays
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About Me
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OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.

The date that appears above will be the date of the most recent reviews. The newer reviews will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

On this page: Aspects of Academy Awards

And reviewed here: Another Year (Movie); Barrymore (Play); Rigoletto and Tosca (Operas); Nothing to Be Frightened Of (Musings)

Aspects of Academy Awards 2011 [See updates persuant to our viewing of The Fighter, on the page dated February 13, 2011]

This being a year when we’ve seen several of the nominees for Oscars, readers of Dilettante’s Diary might rightly expect our comments on the prospects. Keep in mind, though, that these predictions aren’t primarily about our own preferences. We’re trying to guess how the Academy members may be voting.

Of course, we know that winning an Oscar often doesn’t have much to do with artistic merit, at least, not in terms of the specific work for which the award is given. (Witness, most notably, John Wayne’s 1970 award for True Grit.) Often it’s a question of the members of the Academy wanting to give what they see as overdue recognition to one of their colleagues. Or the award-granting can be about political issues – such as elbowing out a foreigner when US interests seem threatened. However, I think it’s fair to say that the list of nominees does usually represent most of the best film work on offer in any current year. At least, that’s the case this year.

Of the ten movies nominated for Best Picture, we’ve seen all but three (Black Swan, The Fighter and Toy Story 3.) No question that The King’s Speech deserves the award and, given the buzz so far, it looks as though it may get it (see Dilettante’s Diary review on page dated Dec 21/10). However, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that the voters will fall back on knee-jerk Americanism and toss out the British offering in favour of an in-depth look at an important part of contemporary culture as foisted on the world by the US: The Social Network (see review on page dated Oct 22/10). It’s a good movie and would be deserving of the award if it weren’t for the extraordinary impact of the front runner. Of the other nominees for best picture that we’ve seen, the only one we couldn’t live with as winner would be Inception (review on page Aug 9/10). Granted, it just isn’t our kind of movie. Still, there’s no way it tops some of the other nominees. They’re all much better. While True Grit (page Jan 17/11) didn’t thrill us – again, it’s a question of movie genres – it’s well made and entertaining.

The only nominee for best actor whom we didn’t see in the relevant film is Javier Bardem in Biutiful. Sounds like his performance is notable but the melodramatic tone of the previews gives us pause. I don’t see, though, how he could best Colin Firth in The King’s Speech. If, however, the Academy shuns both the Brit and the Spaniard, they could well choose any of the other three – Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network, James Franco in 127 Hours (page Dec 6/10) or Jeff Bridges in True Grit – all of whom turned in award-worthy performances.

As for the nominees for best actress, we haven’t seen Natalie Portman in Black Swan or Annette Benning in The Kids Are All Right. Of the others, we didn’t appreciate Nicole Kidman in Rabbit Hole (review on page Jan 17/11) and we had major problems with the Michelle Williams character, if not the acting, in Blue Valentine ( Jan 21/11). If it was up to us then, we’d give the award to the marvellous young Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone (July 16/10). It would give us special pleasure to see that excellent little film get the attention. But we feel the Academy will likely fall back on loyalty to its long-time members, with the result that the award will go to either Ms. Benning or Ms. Kidman.

The only actresses we’ve seen in the supporting role list are Helena Bonham Carter in The King’s Speech and Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit. We’re pleased for Ms. Steinfeld, in that such a young actress is getting this recognition but, as our review of the movie indicates (Jan 17/11), we had serious problems with her acting. And to tell the truth, much as we liked, Ms. Bonham Carter as the young incarnation of Britain’s late Queen Mother, we don’t think the role was complex enough to be worthy of a major award. Taking a wild guess in this category, then, we’ll say the award will go to Amy Adams for The Fighter. Why? Because Hollywood seems determined to honour this young woman in some such way sooner or later.

Of the actors nominated in a supporting role, the only ones we saw were John Hawkes in Winter’s Bone and Geoffrey Rush in The King’s Speech. Mr. Hawkes made a strong impression but, of the two, I’d have to say Mr. Rush’s performance was more award-worthy, in that the character he brought to life was so intriguing. I’m guessing, though, that the Academy will have had enough of the Brits by this point and will give the award either to Mark Ruffalo for The Kids Are All Right or to Christian Bale for The Fighter. They’ve both been kicking around long enough to earn loyalty points with their colleagues.

I always find the category of Best Director difficult to call. I mean, how does anybody know for sure how much of the finished film is due to the director, rather than, say, the editor or the cinematographer? How can you tell exactly what the director contributed? Often, when people rave about a director’s work, I get the impression that they’re making pretentious comments on something they know little about. In any case, we only saw three of the movies whose directors are nominated: The King’s Speech, True Grit and The Social Network. This is one category where we feel there was an important omission: Danny Boyle for 127 Hours. Mr. Boyle made a riveting and exciting movie from an incident that amounted, in reality, to a case of suspended animation. Of the three nominated films we saw, we’d give the award – and this may be no surprise to you at this point – to Tom Hooper for The King’s Speech. The film holds together as a consistent whole that builds to a strong climax. While Joel and Ethan Coen gave True Grit their distinctive touch, I don’t think their work was all that amazing. David Fincher’s work on The Social Network was more impressive, in my view. So I think the Academy will go all-out American in this case and give the award to him. From what I hear of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan and David O. Russell’s The Fighter, neither of them sounds like the kind of movie that makes a big enough splash to win a best director award.

Strangely, we haven’t yet seen any of the Foreign films nominated. But we did see two of the feature documentaries. Unfortunately, one of our faves wasn't nominated: This Way of Life by Thomas Burstyn. It may not be one of the more shocking or controversial documentaries to come out recently but you seldom get such a lovely, deeply-felt look at human beings as this portrait of the Maori couple Peter and Colleen Karena and their vast brood. As for the nominated docs, Exit Through the Gift Shop, credited to Banksy and Jaimie D’Cruz was too kooky for an Academy award (June 3/10). You can’t hand out an Oscar for work when you can’t tell whether it’s a hoax or not. Restrepo by Tim Hetherington and Sebasian Junger, a harrowing look at US soldiers on a dangerous outpost in Afghanistan, certainly deserves an award (Aug 2/10). Will the Academy, however, go all conscientious about social issues and choose one of the three others: Gasland by Josh Fox and Trish Adlesic; Inside Job by Charles Ferguson and Audrey Marrs; or Waste Land by Lucy Walker and Angus Aynsley? No, I’m betting patriotism will trump conscience and the award will go to Restrepo.


Another Year (Movie) written and directed by Mike Leigh; starring Jim Broadent, Ruth Sheen, Lesley Manville, Oliver Maltman, Peter Wight, David Bradley, Imelda Staunton

This looks like my kind of movie. I mean, it’s so non-Hollywood. You have a British couple – Tom and Gerri – in late middle age, neither of them glamorous or important (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen). They’re warm and loving; they’re especially hospitable to lonely friends. The only thing that disturbs their equanimity a bit is the question of when Joe, their pasty-faced son (Oliver Maltman), age thirty, will produce a serious girlfriend. We get lots of intimate dining scenes; great quantities of wine are swilled, not to mention the omni-present mugs of tea. They even drink tea in their truck during a downpour when they’ve gone to work on their garden allotment. There’s not much of a story, things move along very quietly. It’s all filmed beautifully, with extensive use of close-ups to emphasize the humanism of it all.

So why isn't it working for me? Several possible reasons.

The main story – in so far as there could be said to be one – is about Tom and Gerri’s friend Mary (Lesley Manville). She works as a secretary in the community health centre where Gerri’s a counsellor Mary’s had a couple of husbands, by the sounds of it; now she’s alone and needy. But she keeps putting on a brave face and trying to project high spirits. She has an instinct for zeroing in on an available man the way a heat-seeking missile finds its target. She clearly had a claim to good looks at one time but now her face has a tendency to fall apart, especially in emotional moments. Which tend to be brought on by her fondness for booze. Still, she’s a plucky character and we can’t help rooting for her.

Lesley Manville, however, in the Mary role, is something of a study in perpetual motion – always twitching, cringing, fussing and fidgeting. All this squirming is intended to show the insecure, shrinking soul under the cheerful bluster but it gets damn hard to watch after a while – almost as nausea-inducing as the excessive use of a hand-held camera. You begin to wish Mike Leigh had asked Ms. Manville to hold still. Without any such restraint, all the physicality runs the risk of looking like of over-acting. Which is a pity, because what we have here could, with just a bit of re-jigging, be a compassionate study of a woman in a certain situation.

A study, however, does not make a drama. We’re pretty much just watching Mary, the way Tom and Gerri do. There’s nothing to draw us into her struggle. We give her a shoulder to cry on, we provide a bed when she’s too drunk to get herself home, but we’re not engaged in any sort of mutual tussle with her. For a movie to pull me in, there’s got to be some sort of conflict among the characters, a sort of tug-of-war, that makes me care how it turns out. Here, I’m just watching and tut-tutting.

And wondering if Mike Leigh sometimes has a problem with his visions of female characters. Maybe he gets an idea of a woman and he can’t see that she comes off looking to the rest of us like a concept rather than a real person. No such problem with Vera Drake, though. She was the real thing (see Dilettante’s Diary review of Vera Drake on the Movies page, listed near the bottom of the navigation bar). But what about that incurable optimist played by Sally Hawkins in Happy Go Lucky? (Review on page dated Nov 16/08.) People were supposed to love her for her indomitable good spirits but her constant cheeriness made me want to take the film to the editing room and see if some kind of emulsifying agent could make that smile disappear. Am I just being a curmudgeon? Maybe.

That could be why, getting back to Another Year, I got a bit antsy with the loving looks that Tom and Gerri kept throwing at each other. Not that I begrudge them their warm fuzzies, but I didn’t need it constantly pointed out to me that they were so happy and fortunate compared to poor Mary. And when you look closely, Tom and Gerri’s characters aren’t necessarily any better-written than Mary's. Tom, admittedly, is an awfully nice guy, with a self-deprecating sense of humour. Plus, he cooks for his wife! (I guess that’s supposed to earn forgiveness for the ugly ten-day whiskers.) But isn’t Tom just a trifle....well, dull? Apart from his being the ideal husband of any feminist’s dreams, I couldn’t see anything of interest in him. As for Gerri, you’ve got to give her full marks for wisdom and compassion. Even if she does tend to dish out bromides like "You’ve got to make your own decisions" to her clients, there’s no misreading the warm glow in her eyes. Why, then, does she get so frosty when Mary arrives unannounced at Tom and Gerri's one day? I can see that the intrusion is inconvenient but does the failure to phone ahead rate Gerri’s pompous declaration that she’s "disappointed" in Mary?

Maybe it’s a British thing. I dunno. To me, though, it looks like Mr. Leigh, as script writer, doesn’t have a grip on this character. Which makes me question other things about his way of putting a movie together. The character of Ken (Peter Wight), another lonely friend who comes to visit Tom and Gerri, is just as exaggerated as Mary’s. And then there are the irrelevancies. The movie opens with a prolonged scene in which Imelda Staunton plays a depressed woman asking a doctor for sleeping pills. It’s a star turn by Ms. Staunton. Here’s where Mr. Leigh’s close-ups have great impact. So we keep wondering what the consequences of that scene will be. None, as it happens. It was only a way of leading us into Gerri’s work in the health centre. The doctor refers the depressed woman to Gerri for one counselling session and we never hear of her again. And then there’s a virtually anonymous friend who attends a barbeque of Tom and Gerri’s. Something is said about the man’s wife being very ill. We wonder what that’s going to lead to. Zilch. Granted, these kinds of conconsequentional blips happen in life all the time but they don’t help to make for a coherent movie. Nor do scenes like the one where Tom’s consulting with his geologist colleagues about a lump of earth. The scene is too obviously inserted to offset the recurring sight of Tom wearing an apron at the kitchen stove. If the guy says he’s an engineer/geologist, I can take his word for it. I don’t need to see him at work in the field unless that has something to do with what follows.

Still, the movie does offer something really worth seeing. Given that it represents one year in the life of Tom and Gerri, it’s divided into four parts, one for each season. Come the last one – winter – we suddenly get what begins to look like a really engaging movie. It involves a funeral. We see people in situations where they’re well outside their comfort range. Tom’s brother Ronnie (David Bradley), a man in a nearly catatonic state, has an encounter with Mary. She’s in pretty dire straits herself but her instinct for connecting with people comes to the fore. The stumbling attempts to communicate bring to mind the work of great playwrights like Pinter and Beckett. The piece could work as a short film on its own. Or a one-act play on stage. It makes you realize, after all, that there really is something special about Mike Leigh and his movies.

.Rating: D (for "Divided" i.e. some good, some bad)


Barrymore (Theatre) by William Luce; directed by Gene Saks; starring Christopher Plummer; with John Plumpis; the Elgin Theatre, Toronto, until March 9.

It’s spring of 1942, just after the attack on Pearl Harbour. The famous American actor John Barrymore (who will die in a month) has rented a theatre where he’s trying to prepare himself to play Richard III one more time. But he can’t remember the lines, he keeps wandering off on tangents, talking to his imagined audience about his past, and constantly nipping from the ever-present bottle.

Picture some fine contemporary actor in this delicious scenario (which, as far as I know, is a fictional one.) You can probably think of several stars in the role – older and younger. They’d all do a good job and the performance would be enjoyable But put Canada’s most celebrated senior actor in the part and you have a richly theatrical evening: a legend playing a legend. For opening night, fill the theatre with Torontonians (including many celebrities of politics, business and showbiz) who have come to pay homage and you have a cultural event of major proportions.

So, yes, it was fun to be on hand for Mr. Plummer’s reprise of his Tony Award-winning role. And not just because of all the hoop-la. In terms of strictly theatrical values, it’s phenomenal how Mr. Plummer, at the age of eight-one, shows that he still has the energy and vocal power (sans miking) to carry a show to all corners of a theatre seating some 1,500 people. While I was expecting the dignity and the majesty, as well as the tipsy diversion of the eponymous star, what surprised me was the sprightly, almost capricious quality Mr. Plummer projected: singing and soft-shoe dancing, cracking silly jokes, tossing off jingles. The opening of the second act, with Barrymore – in stringy wig and black tights as the hunchback king who's falling asleep and drifting further from reality – struck me as unexpectedly funny. I suppose it was the incongruity of it, i.e. the loss of dignity.

Which is not to say that the grandeur and the vanity of Barrymore aren’t fully accounted for. We get lots of emphasis on the famous profile and the great performances. The sarcastic witticisms about the four ex-wives. The anger towards the drunken father. The lampooning of siblings Ethel and Lionel. But the best moments are the ones where, memory problems in abeyance, Barrymore launches into beloved passages from Shakespeare. As when he’s recalling his mentor and friend Ned Sheldon: "Give me that man that is not passion’s slave...." Near the end of the play, when Barrymore seems to be coming to a realization that another performance of Richard is beyond him, we get: "What a piece of work is man!....And yet to me what is this quintessence of dust?" Given that this is Christopher Plummer intoning the words of the Bard, they come out with such exquisite perfection that they make any other speech seem superfluous.

But we do keep returning to the mundane. One way this occurs is through exchanges with a prompter (John Plumpis) in the wings who is trying to goad Barrymore through the rehearsal. By means of this device, the play avoids one of the major traps that many one-actor shows fall into: somebody standing there talking at you about this and that, but nothing happening dramatically. In this case, however, we get some fiery exchanges between the actor and Frank, the offstage helper, who could be a stand-in for all of us. On his part, you get the admiration and the loyalty, along with the frustration and disappointment. From the actor, there’s the anger and the impatience but also the respect and affection for this person who seems to be putting him to the test of whether or not he is still a viable human being.

Not that it’s all struggle between them. Much of the play’s comedy comes from their inter-action. It must be admitted, though, that most of the writing in the humourous vein doesn’t rise to anywhere near brilliance. Some of it’s pretty low-key, if not outright bland. Such as: "You’re very frank, Frank." And this exchange, in which Frank asks "Why don’t you try AA?" and Barrymore answers "OK, I’ll drink anything." A somewhat better level is reached with this one: Barrymore asks "I don’t look middle-aged, do I?" and Frank answers "Not anymore, sir." And some of Barrymore’s whimsical asides are engaging. Such as: "Suppose I stopped paying alimony, could my ex-wives re-possess me?"

The relationship between the actor and the helper invites inevitable comparisons with the play (and the movie) The Dresser. In that piece, you have a fictionalized version of the relationship between a famous actor (based on the real life Sir Donald Wolfit) and his dressing room assistant. Many of the same themes emerge: the actor’s struggle to remember his lines, the fear of not being able to go on, the support and the exasperation of the helper. But I remember The Dresser as a deeper piece, one that showed a scarier view of the elderly actor’s plight. Barrymore is lighter, more pleasant on the whole. But it does have a certain poignancy all its own. Still, I don’t think it would be nearly so effective if it wasn’t delivered to us from the hands of one of our own luminaries, a man who can look back on a career as illustrious in its own way, if not as fraught, as John Barrymore’s.

[See Dilettante's Diary page dated June 3/10 for my review of Christopher Plummer's memoir: In Spite of Myself.]


Rigoletto (Opera) by Giuseppe Verdi; starring Joseph Calleja, Giovanni Meoni, Quinn Kelsey, Śtefan Kocn, Nino Machaidze, Kirstin Chvez; conducted by Paolo Arrivabeni; with the Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Broadcast on CBC’s Radio Two, Jan 22.

Tosca (Opera) by Giacomo Puccini; starring Peter Volpe, Marcelo lvarez, Sondra Radvanovsky, Falk Struckmann; conducted by Marco Armiliato; with the Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Broadcast on CBC’s Radio Two, Jan 29.

Car trips to Ottawa and back provided opportunities to hear both of these broadcasts almost without interruption and in their entirety.

For me, the main thing about Rigoletto was tenor Joseph Calleja (see a review of a concert of his that I attended, on Dilettante’s Diary page dated Jan 24/07). He must surely be one of the finest tenors singing today. I’m not the first to say this (commentator Ira Siff mentioned it during the broadcast) but he brings to mind the splendid singing of some of the great tenors of the golden age: Jussi Bjrling et al. There’s a lovely spin to his voice and a slight quiver that makes it exciting. As for Nino Machaidze in the role of Gilda, it surprised me to discover, during the intermission interview, that she is so young. Her singing voice sounded like an older one that is starting to give way: lots of waves rather than a steady, sustained sound. It struck me that maybe she’s one of those people who has made her reputation with her electrifying high notes and hasn’t bothered to take care of the rest of the voice. For my taste, she sang Caro nome with too much accent on the beats which subverted the dreamy, languid style that I prefer for that aria. Giovanni Meoni, as Rigoletto, sang very beautifully. His voice is produced with a marvellous evenness from the bottom to the top. Unfortunately, though, it’s not one of those testosterone-soaked baritone voices that reaches right to the bottom of your heels. In the famous quartet, we couldn’t hear him. We did a get a bit of the basso testosterone thrill, however, from Śtefan Kocn as Sparafucile.

The performance of Tosca brought me to a rather surprising conclusion: I don’t much like this opera. Why "surprising"? Well, there are the two or three beloved arias. Apart from them, much of the music strikes me as instrumental filler – a sort of tweedledum-tweedledee continuity. Mind you, I’m aware that Signor Puccini probably wasn’t thinking of what his work would sound like on car radios while people were making long distance journeys. Perhaps when you’re experiencing the work in an opera house, music that might be considered "background" becomes more essential to the atmosphere.

While I was thinking about the opera afterwards, though, something else emerged as my major objection: the story . It’s all about one evil man’s playing nasty tricks on people. He has all the winning cards (even in death) and nobody has a chance against him. I don’t like stories set in such a black-and-white world. Nuance is more congenial to me. Think of other great tragic operas. Few of them hinge entirely on the villainy of one person. In La Traviata, everybody’s doing what they think is right, even if it has tragic consequences. Rigoletto devolves as a concatenation of bad decisions, bad luck and character flaws. Even Madama Butterfly is as much about cultural misunderstanding as it is about one man’s defects. The problems in Aida are due mostly to political circumstances, with a jealous princess tossed in for good measure. Same for Don Carlo. You might say that Otello wouldn’t happen but for one evil man; and yet what causes the tragedy is that the wickedness of that man works on the weakness of another man. One opera that might perhaps turn on one man’s perfidy would be Don Giovanni. In that case, though, I think the inter-action with Leporello helps to humanize the man. Sort of a good-cop-bad-cop routine. In any case, the Don gets his comeuppance in the end.

This production of Tosca marks Sondra Radvanovsky’s first time in this title role at the Met. She sounded splendid to me, although she did drag out Vissi d’arte, milking it for every ounce of pathos. I think it could be more effective if sung a little less melodramatically. Marcelo lvarez is another of the top tenors in the business. His voice isn’t quite as gorgeous as Mr. Calleja’s, but it’s bright, very clear and perfectly smooth through the whole range, if perhaps a bit thin. Commentators Margaret Juntwait and Ira Siff made much of Falk Struckmann’s terrifying effect as Scarpia. His singing didn’t strike such terror in me. Maybe you had to see him in action.


Nothing to Be Frightened Of (Musings) by Julian Barnes, 2008

Everybody’s talking about the first line in this book: "I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him." As famous quotes go, it’s not quite up there with "I have a dream," or "Ask not what your country can do for you...." but it has made its mark on the reading public. Apparently, the statement catches a lot of people where they’re at: somewhere between out-and-out atheism and a feeling that maybe there’s something out there after all. The rave reviews for the book and the laudatory comments plastered all over the cover would indicate that ambivalence, as captured in that that opening line, is the order of the day. 

Which is what drives me nuts about the book. Julian Barnes circles around and around the questions of death and afterlife but comes to no conclusions about either of them. Again and again, he ponders questions like: is it better to have time to prepare for your death, to know that you’re dying, or is it better to have death take you suddenly and unawares? And this one: is it possible to die "in character"? The old conundrum comes up in which the committed atheist dies: how is that person going to feel if he or she finds that there’s an afterlife?

Mr. Barnes quotes myriad writers on these themes, often looking at the differences between what the writers said about their attitudes to death and the ways they actually died. But all this speculation never leads to any enlightenment for author Barnes. It doesn’t help that the book isn’t divided into chapters. It consists of short passages, most of them just a couple of pages long, and there’s no sense that they’re arranged according to any progression of thought. You never feel that you’re getting anywhere.

Maybe the problem is that Mr. Barnes is more of a novelist than a philosopher. The sections where he talks about his parents and their deaths, and about his and his brother’s feelings about them, and the sons' memories of them are fascinating and engrossing. But not the endless (well, it seems that, at 250 pages) hypothesizing and "what-if" imagining. Mr. Barnes frequently makes the point that his brother Jonathan, being a cool-minded, logical philosopher, sees things very differently from himself. So maybe Julian should confine himself to the memories and feelings, leaving the speculation to Jonathan?

At one point, I was wondering whether Mr. Barnes would be more settled about the prospect of death if he had kids. (He says that he and his wife decided not to.) No sooner had that question come to my mind than I arrived at a passage where he began to consider it. He said that friends of his who are parents appear to derive satisfaction from the thought that they are passing on their genes and that they will, therefore, continue to live in a way. There is supposed to be some consolation in the thought that they have produced some sort of replicas of themselves. Mr. Barnes says, regretfully, that that wouldn’t work for him.

But the man misses the point entirely. I don’t know whether or not he’s accurately representing the thoughts of his friends who are parents but, to me, the point is quite other than what he reports his friends as saying. It’s not about producing copies of yourself. Far from it. It’s about knowing that we oldsters must shuffle off to make room for the youngsters, and that life will thus continue as it was meant to. Having kids helps you feel plugged into the cycle of life; it makes you feel the rightness of life and death in their proper times.

Admittedly, with a book like this, a lot depends on how much you can identify with the author. For me as a reader, maybe the problem is that Julian Barnes doesn’t have any of the Irish Catholic in him. Anybody raised in one of the more pure versions of that tradition starts coming to grips with death almost as soon as she or he is aware of being a living person. It doesn’t come on you suddenly in middle age when your parents die. You’ve dealt with it long before then. I may be kidding myself, but it seems to me that I’m at peace with the prospect that what I deludedly call my "self" will cease to exist and the world will go on quite nicely, thank you. (My Zen studies here taking over from the Catholicism.) Mr. Barnes, at one point, actually seems to have hit on the truth that, since the self is an illusion, there's not much point in lamenting the end of it, but he brushes that off, as he does with almost any reasonable conclusion that could be reached, with the protest that it doesn’t feel right to him.

And so he goes on, to more cogitating, more cerebration, more theorizing, more angels dancing on the heads of pins. Not to mention a lot of "clever" writing, such as his positing God as an ironic trickster, and his allusion to "the administrative workings of Mount Olympus." His consideration of the business of cryonic freezing and subsequent (hopefully!) resurrection is pointless unless a reader has a much keener interest in science fiction than I have.

Which is not to say that I didn’t at any point appreciate Mr. Barnes’ musings. His vision of the human race’s extinction a few billion years from now I found entertaining. And I felt like applauding when he describes a difference of opinion between himself and his doctor. She feels that death should be approached as the end of a story, a time for the dying person to resolve things, to make amends, to forgive and to make a finish that will create a coherent whole of the life lived. Not so, says Mr. Barnes. He thinks any attempt to provide meaning by the way a life ends is to impose a phony order on things. I couldn’t agree more.

That being one of the few points of agreement between me and the author, here’s the weirdest aspect of my experience with this book: two friends of mine (including the one who gave me the book) said, quite independently of each other, that they heard my voice in Mr. Barnes’ writing! And yet this book irritated me, made me peeved at the writer, to an extent that no other book has for a long time. Is this a case of not seeing ourselves the way others see us? Or not hearing our own voices the way other people hear them????

Note: Some reviewers like to point out mistakes in books, as if they’re taking the authors to task. Maybe the reviewers feel it’s a way of establishing their authority, their right to pass judgement on an author’s work. Let’s hope there’s no such factor at work here. Nor would I want to think my jumping on one glaring error in this book had anything to do with a personal antipathy towards an author whose voice has been compared to mine. I feel this blooper has to be pointed out in fairness to the people concerned. Mr. Barnes refers to the famous statue of St. Theresa in "religious rapture", with a snide remark to the effect that maybe the rapture depicted isn’t entirely spiritual. Clearly, he means Bernini’s sculpture of St. Theresa of Avila. But Mr. Barnes refers to the saint as "St. Thrse of Lisieux." Two very different women! One a towering Spanish intellectual of the 16th century, and the other a humble and retiring French woman of the 19th century. Let’s give each one the recognition due in her own right. 

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com