Julian Barnes new book is, among many things, a family memoir, an exchange with his brother (a philosopher), a meditation on mortality and the fear of death, a celebration of art, an argument with and about God, and a homage to the French writer Jules Renard.
A strange book. He is an unbeliever that cant stop talking about the Big G. I should have thought after reflecting on the thoughts of Newton, Darwin and Freud Barnes would have, like other intellectuals, adopted some mechanistic view of universe or the self. None apparent here.
Of course neither Barnes nor the parade of Frenchmen have an answer about death or God. How could they?
Since there is nothing conclusive to say about death other than it concludes life as we know it, Barnes brings in other subjects to discuss: his family, memory (curiously he makes no mention of Proust) and some observations on writing that I will delve into a little further. “Fiction...balances precise observation with the free play of imagination.” Nice. “Literature can tell us best what the world consists of. It can also tell us how to live in that world, though it does it most effectively when appearing not to do so.” Interesting, although it would be better to say that some literature makes suggestions of how one might live in the world; but keep going, tell me how. (I end disappointed). “...[the novelist] wants to tell the one true story.” Losing interest, there isnt one true story. “....novelists conspire to present human life as a story progressing toward a meaningful conclusion” Okay, I’m done. I would argue Chekhov and Joyce, for instance, are counterexamples to that statement. In any event, it is pretty silly to try to say what “the novelist” is attempting to present, it would seem to be as varied as there are authors.
Oh! He did write a very funny bit about his last reader. I should like to extend my arms across the years and embrace that man as my brother.
Eventually I drew the book down from a shelf, randomly, to read. As I began it my heart sank: here was another Hitchens-Dawkins-Hawkins (McGrath refers to the first two as ‘Ditchkens) somewhat self-satisfied ‘my parents, grandparents and great-grand-marsh-amoeba grew out of theism/deism/christianity millennia ago and I thank the non-existent god that I was was brought up without that nonsense. Now let’s deliver the death-blow to its meaningless ramblings'. I braced myself for my inevitable defensive response: ‘oh shit - here goes another Ditchkins “all Christians are dumb fuckers” tirade about the death of superstition and the birth of superior knowledge created in the image of Hawkins or Dawkins or Hitch-whoever-he-is/they are.’ Sure enough by page seven religious liturgy, at least in the context of funeral rites, was ‘mumbo-jumbo.
Five pages later I found myself reading a book I could barely part from (Barnes has clearly generated a precedent for preposition abuse!). In a thanatologically-obsessed interior monologue, sort of Louis-Ferdinand Céline meets James Joyce, Barnes takes us in labyrinthine circles around the history of his and his family’s fear of death. His family? His biological family, especially his much-almost-maligned brother, who in fact is Jonathan Barnes, but who is here never given a name, appear often; so too does a wider, broader, and arguably more influential family of literary, philosophical, musical and other artistic giants: Flaubert, Turgenev, Shostakovich, Rachmaninov, Renard, Wittgenstein, Dawkins (whose thanatological certainties are treated with disdain), even (of course) Kübler-Ross, dance around in what theologians (who he doesn’t cite) might call a perichoretic dance. Like the bar of soap in Ullyses, references appear, disappear and reappear in seemingly, but perhaps actually, random sequences.
Barnes’ lack of exposure to the reality of death undoubtedly mars his approach to the universal experience. His obsession borders, at least in the authorial voice of this book, on pathology (he thinks about death ‘at least once each waking day’, he tells a friend – ‘and then there are the intermittent nocturnal attacks’, 24). He cites case after case of macabre or cruelly inappropriate deaths – with one or two cruelly appropriate deaths to counterbalance eternity’s brutality (Pavel Apostolov, anyone, who died in a performance of his political prey Shostakovich’s ‘death-haunted 14th Symphony’? - see 201-202). He confesses to rarely ever having seen a dead body, nor watched a person die. He and I differ not only in our religious perspectives, but in our life experience (no doubt our bank accounts, too!): death and dying, dead bodies and dying bodies: these have been a routine part of my life for two or three decades.
We differ, but I would not dare to offer him a sample from ‘the theological bowl of pistachio nuts’ (27). Barnes is too big for insipid pseudo-answers, and in any case is not asking for an answer. And I am not so silly as to forget that my peculiar form of religiosity dwells in the realm of choice, perhaps even absurd choice, rather than in the unchosen company of that brute universal, death. Besides, I have seen Christian believers approach death in terror, and determined atheists approach it with benevolent good will. No: Barnes deserves better than the myriad evangelistic letters he received when first he went public about his thanatological fears.
Besides, who is Barnes, and who is the voice of Nothing to be Frightened Of – and who can tell or should tell? Barnes writes beautifully, never so much as threatening a dull or clichéd moment, writes (so far as I can tell) with brutal honesty, writes with death-delaying (in my dreams!) humour. Barnes has written a book that cuts to the quick of biological existence, simultaneously laying down a gauntlet, a misère, and a white flag at the personified feet of that universal ultimate word, Thanatos.
For that I am grateful, even if in my own private idiocies I shall march, hobble, crawl, writhe, fall or snore to my own death claiming confidence not only that Thanatos is terminally mortal, but that Barnes will be amongst the frustrated a-theists and a-gnostics – the hyphenization is no accident – who provide God with ‘ludic pleasure’ (208) and who discover that the words ‘the end’ are followed not with a full-stop but an ellipsis. In my naïve faith-filled idiocies God’s ludic pleasures will be toasted with a celestial beer, and Barnes will at last laugh long on the benevolent side of his terminal question mark, where tears (and fears) shall be no more.
Barnes does believe, as he has Jean Serjeant respond to her son in Staring at the Sun: “Is death absolute? Yes, dear….Is religion nonsense? Yes, dear…”. Yet, he begins this book with the line: “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him”. And there you have the tension that runs through this thoughtful, provoking, fascinating book. So many themes and thoughts one could pursue in thinking about this book, but I must limit myself to a few.
For Barnes, missing God is focused, “by missing the underlying sense of purpose and belief when confronted with religious art” and he asks, “Does it matter if we take the religion out of religious art, if we aestheticize it into mere colours, structures, sounds, their essential meaning as distant as childhood memory? Or is that a pointless question, as we don’t have the choice?”. For Barnes, art and religion will always shadow one another, “through the abstract nouns they both invoke: truth, seriousness, imagination, sympathy, morality, transcendence.”
Religion as narrative: “Religion used to offer consolation for the travails of life, and reward at the end of it for the faithful. But above and beyond these treats, it gave human life a sense of context, and therefore of seriousness. Did it make people behave better? Sometimes; sometimes not; believers and unbelievers have been equally ingenious and vile in their criminality. But was it true? No. Then why miss it? Because it was a supreme fiction, and it is normal to feel bereft on closing a great novel.” And later, “…religions were the first great inventions of fiction writers. A convincing representation and a plausible explanation of the world for understandably confused minds. A beautiful, shapely story containing hard, exact lies.”
What is courage with respect to death? For Montaigne, since we cannot defeat death, the best form of counter-attack is to have it constantly in mind, a constant death-awareness that did not induce melancholy, but rendered him prone to fanciful dreaming and reverie. In those days, philosophers and others looked to history, to the Ancients, in search of how best to die: “showing others how to die honourably, wisely, and with constancy.” Now, says Barnes, our ambitions have grown more “puny” and he quotes Larkin: “Courage means not scaring others.” Interesting that in his translation of Daudet’s In the Land of Pain, Barnes uses the same quote from Larkin but notes, admiringly, reports of Daudet rallying if only for a few minutes so as not to alarm family; Barnes quotes Daudet: “Suffering is nothing. It’s all a matter of preventing those you love from suffering.” This sense is echoed in Staring at the Sun: “…courage in the face of death was only part of it; perhaps faking courage for those who loved you was the greater, higher courage.” So, in these considerations, not so puny after all.
Is there a purpose to death-awareness? Yes, says Barnes: “…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; unless you know and feel that the days of wine and roses are limited, that the wine will madeirize and the roses turn brown in their stinking water before all are thrown out for ever—including the jug—there is no context to such pleasure and interests as come your way on the road to the grave. “
What is wisdom? In Staring at the Sun, I rather like Barnes’s view that, “Knowledge didn’t really advance, it only seemed to. The serious questions always remained unanswered.” And, if one can’t necessarily attain wisdom, one can at least discard, “all stupidity”. To this, Barnes adds the advantage of age where, “Wisdom consists partly in not pretending any more, in discarding artifice…it takes a lifetime to see, and say, simple things.” Barnes would temper wisdom with a great deal of humility: “…it isn’t that I have acquired more knowledge in the meantime; just more awareness of ignorance. How can we be sure that we know enough to know? …we hold ourselves categorically wiser than those credulous knee-benders who, a speck of time away, believed in divine purpose, and an ordered world, resurrection and a Last Judgement. But although we are more informed, we are no more evolved, and certainly no more intelligent than them. What convinces us that our knowledge is so final?”
What is the purpose of fiction, of novelists? Barnes says, “…when asked What The Novel Does, I tend to answer, ‘It tells beautiful, shapely lies which enclose hard, exact truths.’” And , crossing over into the realm of memory and history, a novelist, “is someone who remembers nothing yet records and manipulates different versions of what he doesn’t remember.”
This rather long quote captures an important essence:
“These different kinds of truthfulness will be fully apparent to the young writer, and their joining together a matter of anxiety. For the older writer, memory and imagination begin to seem less and less distinguishable. This is not because the imagined world is really much closer to the writer’s life than he or she cares to admit (a common error among those who anatomize fiction) but for exactly the opposite reason: that memory itself comes to seem much closer to an act of the imagination than ever before. My brother distrusts most memories. I do not mistrust them, rather I trust them as workings of the imagination, as containing imaginative as opposed to naturalistic truth.”
Barnes says that, “even the most intricately structured novel must give the appearance of lolloping. Life lollops.” Just as this book lollops from one thought leading to another, all trying to consider, if not make sense of, life and the end of it in death. A wonderful book and one I will re-read.
Particularly liked his reflections on the last person to read this book, who might be a totally different kind of being and who, by definition, will fail to recommend it. Not me.
The best of the book is probably the opening 70 pages. Here Barnes is reflecting on his family history, often with cutting interjections from his older (and wiser?) brother. The tone is light and self-deprecating, and the effect is utterly charming. Then the book moves into God-bothering. Does he exist or doesn’t he? And if he does, what’s he like? But probably he doesn’t, right? It’s an unfortunate turn because it has no viable means of taking us forward. Barnes instead is forced to dip into his box of quotes and anecdotes as the work takes on a workmanly tone - one damn word after another. But don’t give up on it. Eventually Barnes winds his way back to his family and his earlier thoughts. He walks the same paths again and again, even to the point of reusing numerous personal anecdotes and literary quotations. But then those reuses themselves begin to take on a special character as Barnes’ native talent for narrative, as opposed to research and philosophical argument, takes hold. And so the end of the book causes you to reconsider the opening, not least because Barnes learns that a number of his family stories were just wrong. Memory played false is corrected by narrative.
Julian Barnes is a fine writer, so nearly any topic he turned his hand to would have made compelling reading. Here, your reaction may depend upon whether you share his affinity for dread in the face of his own death. (He admits to a creeping suspicion that this might be an unacknowledged ‘writerly’ preoccupation.) I don’t. But I suspect for those who do, this book will be even more pleasurable than it was for me. Gently recommended.
Barnes admits that he fears death. His fear, however, is based on the idea that he will forever cease to exist, not from any apprehension that he will have to face some kind of final judgment to determine where he will spend eternity. As he puts it, “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.” Why does he miss Him? Because God, who has evolved all the way from the vengeful God of the Old Testament to the merciful God of the New Testament, seems open to “negotiation.” Death, on the other hand, “simply declines to come to the negotiating table.”
As Barnes explores his own feelings about life, death, and the existence or nonexistence of an afterlife, he recalls the members of his immediate family, his childhood and adolescence, and his current relationship to friends and family. Barnes and his brother were not raised in a religious household and, partly as a consequence, their views on life and death are similar. If anything, the views of the author’s brother seem to be even more firmly felt than his because, at least according to Barnes, his brother (philosopher Jonathan Barnes) is an avowed atheist who does not fear death in the least.
Despite its general theme, Nothing to Be Frightened Of is not some somber declaration of one man’s pessimistic take on the end of life. Barnes, in fact, uses a surprising amount of humor to make his points and balance the tone of his book. Some of that humor is his own, some of it he attributes to others (such as William Faulkner’s declaration that a writer’s obituary should read simply: “He wrote books, then he died.” Page 129).
Representative of Barnes’s own sense of humor is this bit from page 220 in which he realizes that every writer, no matter how great his fame, will one day have a “last reader”:
“At some point – it must logically happen – a writer will have a last reader…At some point, there will be a last reader for me too. And then that reader will die. And while, in the great democracy of readership, all are theoretically equal, some are more equal than others…Indeed, I was about to make some authorial gesture of thanks and praise to the ultimate pair of eyes…to examine this book, this page, this line. But then logic kicked in: your last reader is, by definition, someone who doesn’t recommend your books to anyone else. You bastard! Not good enough, eh?”
Bottom Line: Nothing to Be Frightened Of is a thoroughly enjoyable memoir guaranteed to entertain while leaving the reader with plenty to ponder.
I found this book to be entertaining, in a rather black-humor sense. It IS about death, after all. But Barnes displays a robust sense of humor about it all, and I especially enjoyed the notes from that long ago ancestor, Renard. Here is one -
"It is when faced with death that we turn most bookish." Hmm ... But I've ALWAYS been 'bookish.' Will I become even more so when death approaches?
Here's a quote from Barnes's mother about her two sons, the philosopher and the author -
"One of my sons writes books I can read but can't understand, and the other writes books I can understand but can't read." (She considered many of Julian's books to be 'filthy.')
And there was Faulkner's comment that "a writer's obituary should read: 'He wrote books, then he died.'" Again, Hmm ... Not a bad description, actually.
Or there's this comment - pretty relevant to today's Trump times, actually - about the "papal states" in the 1840s -
"Education was so discouraged that only two percent of the population could read; priests and the secret police ran everything; 'thinkers' of any kind were held a dangerous class ..."
Barnes also speculates about a hypothetical operation that could take away the fear of death -
"... the operation will also take away your desire to write, but many of your colleagues have opted for this treatment and found it most beneficial. Nor has society at large complained about there being fewer writers."
Chuckles. And there are many such humorous snippets sprinkled throughout the book. But, I have to admit that, finally, one can handle only so much talk of death and dying, despite the witticisms. Eventually it just became a trifle tedious, and I figured out that this whole thing really wasn't going anywhere significant. So I gave it up after nearly two hundred pages, skipped ahead to THE END, which was just that. I enjoyed NOTHING TO BE FRIGHTENED OF, but only up to a point. Recommended, but with a warning that it does wear thin eventually.
- Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER