Monday, October 13, 2008

Nothing to Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes

Barnes is not yet dead, but he's getting to the age (sixty), when he's thinking about death, and the thousand shocks that flesh is heir to, more and more. And so, being a novelist, he decided to write about death, and the fear of death, to examine his own feelings and, perhaps, to calm himself.

He opens Nothing to Be Frightened Of by writing "I don't believe in God, but I miss Him," to which Barnes's philosophy-professor older brother intones, "Soppy." And that's the tension of the rest of the book, between Barnes's wistful agnosticism and his brother's more muscular atheism, the battle between wishing there could be that God you can't believe in and snorting at the idea of any God.

Along the way, Barnes includes some elements of memoir, writing about the now-dead older generations of his family and giving some scenes from his earlier life. But the focus, always, is within Barnes's head: this isn't an autobiography of what he did, but a reflection on what he thought, and what the people important to him -- family members and historical figures -- also thought about the subject of death and mortality.

It's a short book, less than 250 pages, and it doesn't have any chapters, adding to the meditative feeling. Barnes runs topics into each other, shifting from religion to personal history through philosophy to history and then back to religion over the course of twenty or thirty pages, and then circles back over the same ground, or onward into other areas.

Barnes, as always, is a thoughtful, erudite, careful writer -- his passions are sublimated and terribly English passions and his fears are similarly contained and English. (Here, his brother's voice is very welcome -- the elder Barnes is intemperate and never worried about anyone else's feelings.) He's a fine guide through the garden of the fear of death.

Look at that face on the cover: doesn't he look knowledgeable? Isn't that a face to trust?

Barnes has been a favorite writer of mine since I stumbled across the sublime A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters more than a decade ago. If Nothing to Be Frightened Of doesn't sound like your kind of book, check out 10 1/2 Chapters (or Letters from London, a fine collection of essays). But Barnes is a writer no one should miss.

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