Nothing to Be Frightened Of, By Julian Barnes

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The Independent Culture

Julian Barnes's prose is meticulous, with what one is tempted to describe as a French polish that survives even deliberate dressing-down into the demotic. But the intention behind this meticulousness and highly agreeable lucidity is that readers should not notice it: it is designed to be as the purest glass through which the story, or in this case the ideas, can be seen without any sense of an intervening medium.

In this striking style, Barnes here offers a long essay on death and his fear of death, admixed with snippets of family memoir and nostalgia for unpossessed theistic belief. The chief characters in the memoir part are Barnes's quiet, self-effacing father; his mother, whom he presents as a disagreeable, selfish and domineering woman; his grandfather, who appears to have had an ambiguous First World War; and his brother, the philosopher Jonathan Barnes, who habitually wears 18th-century breeches and a ponytail, and figures in this essay-memoir as a somewhat dismissive older and cleverer brother whose memories vary from Julian Barnes's own, sometimes to a quite amazing degree.

But the bulk of the book is formed by the author's obsession with death, which escapes becoming tiresome – alas, one has to add "only just" – because of the battalion of distinguished fellow meditators, and sometimes thanatophobes, he can summon up and quote on the subject, or whose deaths he can describe. Jules Renard, Alphonse Daudet, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Somerset Maugham, Stendhal, AJ Ayer: they're all here, though Renard is a dominating presence.

In all his discussion of and anxiety about death, Barnes scarcely considers the thought that if death is oblivion for oneself, then its main impact on our lives takes place when it visits others. Our experience of death is grief, or loss, or relief, or inheritance – at any rate, something other than blackness or imagined confinement in the narrowness of a coffin. He recognises that dying is an act of living, and that death is a release from its less pleasant possibilities; but this does not delay him much either, and he implicitly places himself in the school of those who fear both dying and death.

The inevitability of extinction makes him wish that religion, or more specifically Christianity, were true. He describes himself as missing God, even though he does not believe in Him. A principal reason for his nostalgia for Christianity is that he thinks, in line with one of his literary heroes, that if it were true it would be beautiful, and that its greatness as a story makes us regret its passing, as when one finishes a good novel. Personally I find these opinions puzzling. The Christian story is a rather jejune syncretic reprise of some old myths (deity impregnates mortal maid with hero/god, who is also a version of the dying-resurrecting god of the ancient vegetation myths) and its morality and metaphysics are simple to the point of simplisticism. There is nothing new in Christianity, and the myths of Greece and India are vastly richer than, as their philosophy is vastly superior to, anything subsequently concocted either by goatherds in tents in the impoverished wastes round the Dead Sea, or their successors among fishermen and tax collectors who thought their slain leader had been the long-promised Messiah.

In the end, Barnes's agonising over death wears the reader out. It seems to miss the surely obvious point that it is a futile distraction from what really matters: finding truth and beauty in the world of our quotidian experience, establishing good relationships with others, achieving something worthwhile in one's work, and cultivating courage in the face of life's inevitable sorrows. That is where meaning is made, in all the different ways in which making it is possible, and the exhausting fingernail-biting over what cannot be avoided (death) or what is simply avoided by a healthy dose of common sense (religion), seems too self-regarding and too diminishing. Ruskin once remarked that a man wrapped up in himself makes a very small parcel; a man wrapped up in fears of death seems to make himself a very empty small parcel.

All that said, the relentlessness of the death-theme should not detract from the lovely prose, the agreeable humour and the delightful literary and artistic allusion that bubble like good champagne on most pages. Nor should it dull the palate for more on the family that has produced two such remarkable individuals as Julian and Jonathan Barnes; perhaps, when the former has read the following words of Spinoza, "the meditation of the wise man is a meditation on life, not on death", he might be persuaded to tell us less about death and more about his life.

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