Death has been on Julian Barnes's mind all through his writing career. Flau-bert's Parrot (1984) was, among other things, a meditation on suicide. Staring at the Sun (1986) had a brilliant riff about life insurance and the idiocy of people "weighing up the advantages of their own extinction". The concluding section of A History of the World in 10 Chapters (1989) imagined Paradise as a location where everything is perfect, and therefore terminally boring.
Two decades later, he has gone into mortality overdrive. The Lemon Table (2004) was a collection of short stories on ageing and death. Now we have Nothing to be Frightened of, 250 pages of musings on death, eschatology, the decline of religion, the consolations of art, the mixed blessing of families and the way memory plays tricks with the supposed facts of your life. Barnes pre-emptively declares, "This is not, by the way, 'my autobiography.' Nor am I 'in search of my parents'."
We do, however, learn things about the author we never knew before: that he was a "zealous and unflagging" masturbator when young, that's he's chronically melancholic, deaf in one ear – and that he habitually wakes up in the small hours wailing, punching the pillow, petrified of dying. He has suffered from death-awareness, he tells us, since he was 13 or 14. Frankly envious of a friend called G, who started worrying about the Big Sleep when he was four, Barnes sets out to investigate the territory of death in our minds and bodies.
Following Montaigne's prescriptions about an "exemplary death", Barnes glumly considers various "best-case" scenarios (Alphonse Daudet, fortunate man, snuffed it at his own dinner table, drinking soup, surrounded by his family) and inspects the contrasting beliefs about the post-mortem state held by Platonists, Epicureans and Ciceronians. Now 62, he wonders about Pascal's wager: if you believe in God, and he turns out to exist, you win; if he turns out not to exist, you lose, but not as badly as you might have lost if you hadn't believed in the first place. But you cannot just summon up belief to order, nor assume it will save you. "Keep the faith," my father, a devout but pragmatic Irish Catholic, used to say, "or you'll never have a day's luck" – a post-Pascalian attitude but, alas, a total heresy.
And Barnes's own belief? His father was agnostic, his mother an atheist, so he grew up, he says, with no faith to lose. At Cambridge he used to call himself "a happy atheist". When he once admitted, on the radio, to being agnostic, his mother telephoned him to berate him for taking such a milquetoast position. But some half-admitted impulse of "Godless wonder" keeps nagging away inside him, as it nags at the unreligious cyclist in Philip Larkin's poem "Church Going".
Barnes's book opens with the words, "I don't believe in God but I miss him," and he returns to the line to explain what he means. He dreads the gradual ebbing of Christianity, because of the texture which it gives, or gave, to religious art. "I miss the God that inspired Italian painting and French stained glass, German music and English chapter houses, and those tumbledown heaps of stone on Celtic headlands which were once symbolic beacons in the darkness and the storm."
The core of the book is an aesthetic, rather than a religious, elegy. Barnes surrounds it with a rich array of questionings from the cusp of life and death. What makes us give up God? How do we go on pursuing our footling material goals when we know (or strongly suspect) there's no afterlife? Are religious people more virtuous than atheists? These questions seldom elicit answers, but instead personal anecdotes, news items, historical believe-it-or-don'ts, quotations and family stories. It's a constant up-and-down of rumination-anecdote-rumination, a Cartesian see-sawing of physicality and spirituality, body and mind – entertaining and stimulating, but oddly issueless.
Other voices are called to assist him. He has slightly stilted philosophical dialogues with his older brother Jonathan, an academic specialising in the Pre-Socratics. Whether Barnes's intention or not, Jonathan comes across as a howling intellectual snob, saying of his earliest experience of church-going, "I seem to recall being mystified, an infantile anthropologist among the anthropophagi." Barnes Jnr also calls up squadrons of writers, from Plato to Maugham, to inspect their two penn'orth of insights into mortality.
Sometimes the book threatens to turn into an anthology of death-writings, and one starts to wonder: How can he devote so much time to the vapourings of the French savant Jules Renard, and ignore (say) Shakespeare, who puts into the mouth of Claudio (in Measure for Measure) the finest, and scariest, articulation of the terror of being nothing?
The best pages, however, are those in which he evokes his parents. His father died in 1992, his mother in 1997, and he confesses: "Part of what I'm doing... is trying to work out how dead they are." Barnes's chief virtue as a writer – a shameless nosiness about human behaviour, expressed in fastidious prose – is on display, as he inspects a cache of postcards sent by his father to his mother from the 1930s.
He makes a surreal discovery: that the circular, Indian-leather pouffe his father once brought home from his travels had been stuffed with torn-up fragments of the love letters they exchanged during their courtship and early marriage. All that emotion ripped up so that other people's fat bottoms could sit on it!
Barnes reports that the pouffe ended its life dumped at the end of the garden, sodden with rain. "I would kick it occasionally as I passed, my wellington ejecting a few more blue scraps, the ink now running, the likelihood of legible secrets being divulged even less." It's moments like this that stay in your head long after Barnes's pageant of chin-stroking abstractions has passed by.
John Walsh's novel 'Sunday at the Cross Bones' is published by HarperPerennialReuse content