Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
Nothing to be Frightened Of
By Julian Barnes
ISBN: 9780099523741, 1/07/09, paperback
Julian Barnes isn’t exactly afraid of death, but it’s not a condition he aspires to. It’s also probably fair to say that he’s concerned about death, and his aging body has done nothing to ease that concern. His latest book is a nonfiction hybrid that is part extended essay, part memoir, and part playful narrative. There are all sorts of interesting angles in this book, including a hefty dose of sibling rivalry between Julian and his philosopher brother Jonathan Barnes; an exploration of the French writer Jules Renard (a relative), and a kind of internal tussle between the personal Julian Barnes, and the authorial character of Barnes, whose books will survive the man.
That Barnes’ famous agent wife, Pat Kavanagh, died suddenly and fairly shortly after the publication of this book is both proof of the uncertainty around every corner (as if we needed that proof), and cruel irony for the author. It’s an irony he prefigures in the book, though around himself, rather than his vibrant wife, who must have seemed immortal. But of course, and this is one of the points that Barnes makes so well, we can’t really second-guess death. Nor can we begin to believe that we will really die, even when it has become obvious. It’s simply beyond our ken – like the pencil point beginnings of the universe we live in – too outside of everyday experience to make sense of. Barnes’ scholarship on the subject is wide-reaching, done with the absorption of one who is deeply interested in his own subject:
…Koestler observed many of those about to die—including, as he was assured, himself- and came to the following conclusions. First, that no one, even in the condemned cell, even hearing the sound of their friends and comrades being shot, can ever truly believe in his own death; indeed Koestler thought this fact could be expressed quasi-mathematically – ‘One’s disbelief in death grows in proportion to its approach.’ (137)
For those who like their philosophy peppered with anecdote, reflection, and biography, this book won’t disappoint. Barnes mines deeply into his own family, looking at the lives, philosophical tendencies (or lack thereof) of his parents; his brother; his grandparents, his distant relatives, his friends, and a wide number of writers so well examined by Barnes that they’re almost related. The impact of his parents’ death is explored deeply, personally, and then broadened into a more general type of observation that the reader can identify with. While digging a few competitive fingernails into his brother, Barnes touches upon additional significant questions around the nature of memory, aesthetics in general, and more particularly, how we deal with artwork inspired by religion, in the absence of a god. The book also explores the nature of writing itself:
Fiction is made by a process which combines total freedom and utter control, which balances precise observation with the free play of the imagination, which uses lies to tell the truth and truth to tell lies. It is both centripetal and centrifugal. It wants to tell all stories, in all their contrariness, contradiction and irresolvability; at the same time it wants to tell the one true story, the one that smelts and refines and resolves all other stories. (241)
Above all, and despite its heavy theme, the book is lighthearted, good natured (even when the sibling rivalry is at its height), and warm. The imagined, more youthful reader is addressed directly, and brought into the book as accomplice:
“In the matter of you and me – assuming I’m not already, definitively dead by the time you’re reading this – you’re more likely, actuarially, to see me out than the other way round” (108).
Though we may (it’s not guaranteed of course) have longer to go than Barnes does, we too will die, and are therefore participants in the search for some kind of acceptable resolution. Of course there is none. It’s unlikely that the contemporary reader will be either Barnes’ final fan (told off brutally for not passing his book on), or his final grave visitor (applauded), much as we would like to provide assurances to him that his book is in safe hands. Right to its final page, the book remains witty, thought-provoking, fun, and, in equal measures, terrifying and pacifying. There’s a deep and self-deprecating honesty here almost belies the tight perfection of Barnes’ novels. There’s no getting away from the inevitability of its theme, or the rather awful irony that Barnes deftly builds into the book. At some point, in the not unforeseeable future, someone will be reading the book after Barnes’ has passed away. At some point, the book will be read by someone who survives the current reader. And at some point further in the future, the book will disappear. It’s the one certainty we all have. Barnes doesn’t whitewash that fact. He rubs our face in it: worms, decay, slow dementia, and all. That the book remains elegant, moving, upbeat, erudite, lucid, and calm throughout the morass is due to Barnes’ great skill as a writer. Nothing To Be Frightened Of is, as one would expect from Julian Barnes, a tightly written, and ultimately affirmative piece of work that takes the reader on a journey that ends in exactly the place you’d expect. Black humour notwithstanding, it’s one of those books that will enrich your life, at least while you’ve still got it.
About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball runs The Compulsive Reader. She is the author of Sleep Before Evening, The Art of Assessment, Quark Soup, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Cherished Pulse and She Wore Emerald Then. She runs a monthly radio program podcast The Compulsive Reader Talks.