Grief, memory, writing

On 16th April this year, Julian Barnes was interviewed by his neighbour Rachel Whiteread for

“…BARNES: The one thing that’s really pissing me off about grief is that you inevitably remember the beloved in the same way. At first, I really loved when someone had a memory of her that I didn’t know, one she’d never told me about. For that moment, when I got a new story, she was alive, because something new had been added.

WHITEREAD: That’s beautiful.

BARNES: But increasingly that doesn’t happen. After about four or five years, I’ve only very occasionally heard something new. So the nature of grief does change, not just because of time, but because of the repetitiveness of the memories. She becomes somehow more generalized in my memory. And in life she was a very particularized person, and so I resent that. But it doesn’t do any good.

WHITEREAD: Memories do change like that. They become more generalized. What I do in my work, I call it rummaging through my own rubbish bin. I am continually doing that with memory, going forward and backward, in and out.

BARNES: I think of it as a kind of compost heap. Everything that happens, everything you see, it just inevitably gets thrown on the compost heap. And then, three years later, all of a sudden a potato starts sprouting. It works as a metaphor for writing, too. Things have to mulch down. Often I don’t quite know where an idea comes from. The latest book, The Man in the Red Coat, is a very rare example where, in 2015, I went to the National Portrait Gallery show of John Singer Sargent portraits and saw that painting.

WHITEREAD: Seeing that figure in red made you want to immediately research this man’s life?

BARNES: I’d never seen it before because it was hidden until 1990 when it came out and it hadn’t traveled much. I read the wall label and it said, “A famous gynecologist, also a famous Don Juan,” and I thought, “Oh, that’s interesting.” But it was also odd because I know late 19th-century France quite well. And here was a guy with a strange name I would have clocked. That’s all I thought at the time. Two-and-a-half years later, when I was thinking of doing a trilogy on doctors who died in spectacular and unexpected ways, I came across his name in one of my notebooks. He was the first one I started investigating. He had political and literary and artistic connections, and yet you look through all the diaries of the period and he’s barely there. So that intrigued me because he was obviously a very powerful person.

WHITEREAD: Did you want to give him a voice in a way?

BARNES: That sounds a bit too high-minded. I don’t think I thought, “I must give Dr. Pozzi a voice, he’s been silent too long!” It was more that he was someone who I might make vivid through the particular knowledge and talent that I have. But telling his life story was fascinating…”

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