Writers & Company

'I don't believe in God, but I miss him.' Julian Barnes on why he puts his faith in stories

The celebrated English writer talked to Eleanor Wachtel in 2011, shortly after winning the Man Booker Prize for his novel, The Sense of an Ending.
Julian Barnes with Eleanor Wachtel at the Toronto Reference Library in 2016. (Mary Stinson)

Julian Barnes won the Man Booker Prize in 2011 for The Sense of an Ending — his fourteenth work of fiction — after being nominated in each of the preceding three decades. The novel follows the life of a man from schoolboy to retiree, as he tries to make sense of a friend's suicide, and to find out what became of the woman they both loved. The idea for the story came partly from Barnes's own discovery that a school friend had killed himself 25 years earlier. In 2017, The Sense of an Ending was made into a film starring Charlotte Rampling and Jim Broadbent.

Julian Barnes talked to Eleanor Wachtel shortly after winning the Man Booker Prize in 2011. His most recent novel is The Only Story, published in April 2018.

The impetus behind The Sense of an Ending

"I remember when I handed in the typescript of this novel, The Sense of an Ending, to my editor in London. He read it and we talked a little bit about when to publish it and he said, 'I've got a question — it may be a bit naive, but where did this come from?' And I said, 'Actually I don't know.' Then I thought back to this nonfiction book, Nothing To Be Frightened Of, that I'd written, in which I was thinking about what happens to the religious person who, toward the end of their life, suddenly ceases to believe? Or, what if the opposite happened — what if you got to your 60s or 70s as an atheist and suddenly you were converted to a form of religious practice?

"What would be the effect on your thinking about all your previous life? I think that fed into the impetus behind this book. You take someone who thinks his account is settled with life, that he's safely negotiated it and then you throw something in with a long fuse that goes off with a loud explosion. What if he discovers that his memories are just customized to make him feel comfortable? What if his memories have only a certain percentage of self-serving truth in them and no real truth? What if he starts looking for corroboration and the corroboration he gets is extremely unhelpful and unwelcome to him?

"We are a narrative animal, aren't we? We live by stories. Sometimes true, sometimes false. We want the news to be turned into stories. We want a narrative even when there's no narrative. We want our human life on this planet to be turned into a narrative. Doctors, thanatologists, those dealing with the dying think that it's a point where you can look back on your life and see the story of it, understand the narrative of your life. I'm much more skeptical of that. I think there are lots of instances where there is no narrative, or the narrative is one we wouldn't want to accept because it's too painful to bear. I think that, as we are a narrative animal and it would be boring to tell a story in exactly the same way, we're bound to elaborate aren't we? We're bound to our side of the story."

From atheist to agnostic

"My parents didn't go to church other than to get married, go to funerals and an occasional baptism. Nothing in my upbringing or my reading or education encouraged me to think that there was any truth in religion. I think I was 15 or so when I realized that all the hymns we sang at school and the prayers that we prayed didn't relate to truth and reality as I believed it to be. At that point and certainly up to my 20s, I would have said 'I'm an atheist.' I absolutely did not believe in any form of God. I still don't, but I guess as you become older you realize that on the one hand you know more than you did when you were 15, but also you know the limits of your knowledge. While I don't believe that any traditional Christian God is out there with any interest in us at all, I think that we don't know enough to say certainly that there's absolutely nothing.

"This is not because I am now nearer to death and therefore I'm getting a bit scared. I believe that we're all — our life, our consciousness — eliminated in perpetuity when we die. I think that's extremely hard to take in and hard to bear but I think that's the case. So when I say I'm now an agnostic, I don't mean, 'Oh I hope God might come in from behind the curtains in the next room and he'll let me off.' I just mean that we don't understand the universe and our place in it enough. We don't understand time, matter and things like that enough to say that there's only us here. But it's a comparatively small adjustment to what I would have said when I was 15."

A writer's consolation

"I think about death, at minimum, every day and often in the middle of the night as well. I don't get anywhere by thinking about it, but I acknowledge it. Whether this makes me enjoy my life more or less is not quantifiable. It may be that because I'm aware of death I get more out of life than I would otherwise. On the other hand, you could equally argue it the opposite way — if you don't think about death at all then you can really get on with enjoying your life. Who knows?

"But it's a subject one can write about at least. I remember once waking up in the middle of the night in a sort of screaming panic about the thought of inevitable and eternal annihilation of the self and thinking, 'Well at least you can write about it. I can probably get a paragraph out of this.'"

Julian Barnes's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the broadcast program: La plus que lente composed by Claude Debussy, performed by Jean-Bernard Pommier.