Monday, August 18, 2008

Nothing to be Frightened of by Julian Barnes

Julian Barnes’ book begins with this intriguing sentence: “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him.” This opening is the high point of the book and it is all down hill from there. Nothing to be Frightened of is a mongrel, a bitzer. It is a ragbag of reminiscences, memoirs and Barnes family folklore. It also incorporates a deeper discussion on death.

The author himself is unsure of the genre for after thirty pages he says to his readers: “This is not, by the way, ‘my autobiography’. But with this book Barnes has blown his chances of writing a standard autobiography. Written in the first person, Barnes recalls his childhood with the wheelbarrow races and evenings when the family tuned into the wireless to savour the dulcet tones of John Gielgud.

This book tracks the author’s University studies and alludes several times to his ventures in France. Nothing to be Frightened of is about Barnes’ developing ideas about religion and faith. The scope of the book stretches from his breast-fed babyhood to his new status as a sixty-year old and readers are given glimpses into the writer’s club that Barnes attends and such details as the author’s deafness and his swelling prostate. Even if Barnes writes an autobiography it will take readers of this book much convincing that they want to read another version of his life story.

Julian Barnes is the self-appointed family archivist and the book reads like an emptying of the drawers of his desk as he picks his way through family certificates, passports, notebooks, scrapbooks, telegrams and allows them to speak. The book is rich in family memories, many of which are interesting and quaint. The author is struck by how family members have a different take on the same events. He does not ‘gild the lily’ or ‘colour in the memories’. On the contrary, Barnes is forthright about the weaknesses and idiosyncrasies of his family, including his own and he specializes in shocking readers with references to ‘unmentionables’ such as his revelations of masturbation.

The focus of this book is death and this is the subject about which “there is “nothing to be frightened of” (Barnes’ quote from his diary when in his forties). This book discusses the fear of death, the experience of touching the dead, the relationship between faith and the approach to death, the art of dying (including the best and worst-case scenarios), the moment of death, the stages of grief and the afterlife.

Barnes seems to be taking Montaigne’s line that “since we cannot defeat death, the best form of counter attack is to have it constantly in mind.” Sometimes he appears to be ‘pit-gazing’ but he strives for a middle ground between constantly brooding over death and the complete avoidance of this certain event. His discussion of thanatology includes many references to what others have said about death, especially Renard, Montaigne and Flaubert but also some recent writers such as Elizabeth Kübler-Ross.

The author ventures into areas of faith, belief, religion and that which he misses about God. Of special interest is the author’s discussion of religious art and the value that is found in religious art by those not possessing a faith in God.

Julian Barnes appears diffident about his excursion into this territory and feels the need to give his readers this information and self-defence:

“Perhaps I should warn you (especially if you are a philosopher, theologians or biologist) that some of this book will strike you as amateur, do-it-yourself stuff. But then we are all amateurs in and of our own lives.”

Furthermore, after covering some issues of theory and abstract thought Barnes breaks into a chatty and almost condescending tone with such lines as, “Still hanging in there, I hope.”

As a student Barnes kept a box of green index cards, on which he copied pithy sayings, quotations and pieces of wisdom. With this book the author appears to be going through his greatly enlarged box, sorting them into rough themes and writing out the wisdom. In attaining the three-quarter mark in his life Barnes is giving full expression to his entry into these “advice-giving years”.

Nothing to be Frightened of has no chapters but each time Barnes takes a fresh card and changes tack, this is indicated with a line. This emptying of the box in what he calls his “lolloping style” is an unsatisfying ramble.

Barnes alludes to the way Rachmaninov cured his fear of death by eating pistachio nuts. Nothing to be Frightened of is like picking through a bowl of pistachios. There are bits of tasty, nourishing nuts to be had and Barnes is at his best with his humorous stories, perceptive detail and clever wit. But readers must work hard to find the nuts and the frustrating pile of shells leaves you wondering whether it was worth the effort.

The author explains his return to the study of literature at Oxford after a brief foray into philosophy:

“I returned to literature, which did, and still does, tell us best what the world consists of. It can also tell us how best to live in that world, though it does so most effectively when appearing not to do so.” (p151)

Readers of this book will agreed that Barnes is also at his best when writing literature.

Julian Barnes, Nothing to be Frightened of (London: Jonathan Cape, 2008).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh128.00.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of Nothing to be Frightened of.

Related Review:
Arthur and George, by Julian Barnes RBM