A review of Nothing to be Frightened Of, by Julian Barnes

Freud believed it impossible to imagine your own death. If you picture your own funeral, it's you, after all, who observes it. Julian Barnes imagines his imagination deserves more credit. "For most of my sentient life I've known the vivid dread," he writes, "and also felt fully able…to imagine my own eternal non existence." This has not brought philosophic calm. "People say of death, ‘There's nothing to be frightened of,'" he recorded in his diary, decades ago. He didn't believe it then, and now, at age 62, night terrors leave him "pitchforked back into consciousness," beating his pillow and wailing in horror "Oh no Oh No OH NO!"

Barnes has won the Somerset Maugham Award, the E.M. Forster Award, the Prix Médicis, the Shakespeare Prize, the Austrian State Prize for European Literature, and was named a Chevalier, then an Officier, and finally a Commandeur of France's Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. He is a regular New Yorker contributor and a central figure in modern British literature. His new book was named by theNew York Times as one of the year's Ten Best. Michael Dirda in the Washington Post called it "[b]eautifully done." Richard Eder in the Boston Globe spoke of the author's "humane irony." And Garrison Keillor in the New York Times Book Review confessed: "It is a beautiful and funny book, still booming in my head." Suffice it to say, the mandarins of contemporary culture think this book and its author are keepers. If laurel wreaths were still in fashion, Barnes would be crowned with a forest.

Nothing to Be Frightened Of is an unusual book. It is partly a memoir of the author's family, partly a reflection on death and inseparable perplexities like religion, memory, and the purpose of life. Unorganized and chapterless, it reads like a long essay. Barnes's working thesis is that death exists, not God; that life is haphazard and the will isn't free; that one struggles in vain to find transcendence in life or consolation in death. It's as dreary as it sounds, though alleviated somewhat by Barnes's stylish, unpreachy prose. As the author of ten novels and collected essays and stories, Barnes's thought naturally turns to his—and every novelist's-bid for immortality. He thinks he may enjoy a generation or two of readers, if lucky, but literary work is "really just scratching on the wall of the condemned cell. We do it to say: I was here too." Later in the book we learn that even this is expecting too much: "At some point between now and the six-billion-years-away death of the planet," he writes, in one of his frequent appeals to natural science, "every writer will have his or her last reader." Some see the glass half full, some half empty; some see the glass and its contents decaying into carbon dust.

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The autobiographical passages consist mainly of scenelets featuring his parents' aging and death. They are remarkable for their icy detachment. Here, for instance, is Barnes viewing his mother at the undertaker's: "I touched her cheek several times, then kissed her at the hairline. Was she that cold because she'd been in the freezer, or because the dead are naturally so cold?" So with his grandmother's senility, his mother's dementia, his father's stroke-induced incapacitation, old photo albums, funerals, cremations—none of these seem to provoke even the faintest lingering tenderness. He recounts exchanges with his brother Jonathan, a retired professor of Greek philosophy in Geneva and an eccentric who wishes to be buried in his garden nearby the half-dozen llamas in his possession. At one point the stoic brother-philosopher, who serves as a foil to his brother-novelist, calls the fear of death "irrational." "It's the most rational thing in the world," Julian responds. "[H]ow can reason not reasonably detest and fear the end of reason?"

Death, of course, is not the end of reason in the biblical (or Platonic) traditions. Barnes, however, comes from a household in which his father only consulted the Bible in solving crossword puzzles; his mother apparently took up the "mumbo-jumbo" even less frequently. Still, time's winged chariot, which we hear but never see, hurries near. The half-hearted dismissal of God in his youth has become, in his 50s and 60s, a half-hearted dismissal of his half-hearted dismissal, which by my calculation leaves him a quarter-hearted agnostic. One evening at the dinner of a writers' club, the seven members call a referendum on the possibility of an afterlife. All deny it, save for the wavering Catholic. (Another calls it a "cruel con" but adds that he "wouldn't mind if it were true.") They would have mocked the Catholic once, says Barnes, but "now there is a sense that the rest of us are much closer to the oblivion in which we believe, whereas he, at least, has a moderate, modest hope of salvation and Heaven. It seems to me…that we quietly envy him." Thus, characteristically, Barnes tries simultaneously to give himself consolatory credit for an emotion and for the unflinching realism that strips it of meaning.

The only certainty is Death, which, unlike God, doesn't "pretend to be Vengeful or Merciful, or even Infinitely Merciless…death never lets you down, remains on call seven days a week, and is happy to work three consecutive eight-hour shifts." Grim business to be sure, says Barnes, but consider the alternative: immortality. Life everlasting, he observes, in a passage typical of his manner of proceeding, would be one long stretch of excruciating tedium; moreover, the pain of life makes death a blessing; finally, human beings, such as they are, hardly deserve eternal perpetuation. Naturally the authorities can make exceptions ("Shakespeare, Mozart, Aristotle, over there, behind the velvet rope, the rest of you down this trapdoor"). But for the rest of us, for Barnes's readers—you, as he often addresses us—life is, in Henry James's phrase, a mere "predicament before death." Barnes finds death-haunted Russians congenial ("I think that if people began thinking about death sooner," said Shostakovich, "they'd make fewer foolish mistakes." But mostly he owes his penchant for paradox and frigid cynicism to a coterie of 19th-century French writers: Zola, Daudet, Flaubert, Stendhal, the brothers Goncourt, and above all Jules Renard (1864-1910), who, after witnessing the deaths of his father by shotgun suicide and mother by drowning in a well, seems to have specialized in the God-related epigram: "I don't know if God exists, but it would be better for His reputation if He didn't." "God does not believe in our God." "Yes, God exists, but He knows no more about it than we do." (The first line of Barnes's book is an attempt at this art: "I don't believe in God, but I miss Him.")

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Barnes's own story is vague and disjunct—few dates, little chronology, friends identified only by letters. He insists on repeating, pages apart, particular phrases and factual tidbits, a sort of cross-referencing that seems calculated to reflect the flightiness of memory. Or maybe he wants his readers to know that he doesn't care about being careless. A closing page reveals an error made on his opening one—his grandfather was christened Bertie, not Bert, as he had claimed—yet he feels no need to amend the first sentence and spare us the correction. After a paragraph on the need to embrace oblivion, Barnes shrugs: "Such wintry wisdom may briefly convince. I almost persuaded myself for the time I was writing the paragraph above." The expectation, page after page, that any sentence is liable to be recast or disavowed by a subsequent one becomes tiresome, but it does effectively convey Barnes's own irresolution. Like a man unable to sleep, he moves restively from topic to topic, a childhood memory sparking a literary reflection, or such a reflection causing an old memory to resurface. In his chatty informality he peppers the reader with questions, as if he required our help in thinking a matter through ("Would you rather be conscious of your dying, or unconscious of it?"). At times he tries to force the reader to share his anxious cast of thought:

I may be dead by the time you are reading this sentence. In which case, any complaints about the book will not be answered. On the other hand, we may both be alive now (you by definition so), but you could die before me. Had you thought of that? Sorry to bring it up, but it is a possibility, at least for a few more years. In which case, my condolences to your nearest and dearest.

Such waggery just barely rescues the book from morbidness, but it does not relieve the tone of disenchantment. Not first-hand disenchantment—Barnes is disenchanted with being disenchanted, and disenchanted with being disenchanted with being disenchanted, etc., etc. This is a tedious pose. Bored to death by an irony they don't know how to relinquish, our prize-winners try to express some kind, any kind, of sincerity, even if only as a joke.

This is why the book, despite its supposedly terrifying subject, does not terrify. On one hand there is the eerie emotional frost that encrusts the portrait of his family, which does nothing to excite human sympathy. Then there is the relentless scientific austerity. Beyond literary figures, Barnes's taste turns to men of science. He favors evolutionary biologists (especially Richard Dawkins) who teach, in his words, that behavior is governed by a "plait of genetic material," that "we are a mere sequence of brain events," and the soul a "story the brain tells itself." When human life is anatomized as a mere mass of DNA and cerebral flickerings, when the long view means brooding on the planet's frozen future, one's fate in the universe loses its personal consequence. So does the book. With no instruction to impart, no ethic to guide us,Nothing to be Frightened Of is inconclusive, as it must be, but also joyless, which it need not. Barnes is a talented writer sharing his confusions about life's fixed mysteries. This is an honest position, but not one that satisfies. Not even for the author: "I can't claim that confronting death (no, that sounds too active, too pretend-heroic—the passive mode is better: I can't claim that being confronted by death) has given me any greater accommodation with it, let alone made me wiser, or more serious, or more…anything really." Barnes gives us a book about nothingness, and concludes that he has nothing of interest to say about the subject.