“I don’t believe in God but I miss him,” is Julian Barnes’s contradictory and uncharacteristically twee opener in this wide-ranging essay on death, religion, and family. When he asks his brother Jonathan, a professor of ancient philosophy living in France, what he thinks of this statement, his reaction is unequivocal: “Soppy.”
Barnes, the author of ten novels, including Flaubert’s Parrot, was born to a family of soft-core atheists and agnostics, and has suffered since his teens with an acute fear of death. In this, of course, he is not alone. A lifelong francophile, Barnes shares his apprehension with many of the writers he most admires, among them Jules Renard, Alphonse Daudet, and Gustave Flaubert. He has spent more time than seems natural visiting the graves of famous figures. His most recent, well-received book of short stories, The Lemon Table, focused on a series of characters near the end of their lives.
Barnes reassuringly entitles his book Nothing to be Frightened Of and then spends its duration cowering under a metaphorical table of his own fashioning. His source material is varied: conversations with friends, philosophical tracts, macabre accounts of how the famous met their ends and puerile musings of the “would you rather be deaf or blind” variety. It’s a dialectic equal parts Woody Allen and Richard Dawkins, the latter of whom he admires, despite finding his lordly, “grow up” attitude paradoxically reminiscent of “the punitive hardliners of old Christianity.”
Barnes is at his funniest when writing about his insipid, if not quite dysfunctional family. His relationship to his parents, who died five years apart in the early nineties, was typically English in its dispassionateness. Of his controlling, self-centred mother, he muses “Her dominance of the family, and her certainties about the world, made things usefully clear in childhood, restrictive in adolescence, and grindingly repetitive in adulthood.” Of her two sons’ respective vocations, she once told a friend: “One of my sons writes books I can read but not understand, the other writes books I understand but can’t read.” Barnes’ father is characterized as passive and compliant, although he admits to having used the harsher term “weak” in his more judgmental adolescence.
We often praise writing we deem “unsentimental.” Judged by this yardstick, Nothing to be Afraid Of merits high accolades indeed. When his mother dies, Barnes goes to see her body at the undertaker’s, noting: “Wanting to see her dead came more, I admit from writerly curiosity than filial feeling; but there was a bidding farewell to be done, for all my long exasperation with her.”
One of the pivotal moments of Barnes’s adolescence comes when he discovers that the family’s leather “plouffe” (a beanbag on this side of the Atlantic) is stuffed with the shredded remains of his parents’ letters of courtship. After years of enjoying the farty noise the plouffe made when he dropped his weight on it, the object is suddenly a source of endless speculation about his parents’ marriage: “How could they have taken their love letters (doubtless kept in ribboned bundles), torn them into tiny pieces, and then watched other people’s fat arses hunker down on top ‘They’ meant, of course, my mother, since such practical recycling fitted my reading of her, rather than what I judged to be my father’s more sentimental nature. How to imagine that decision, and that scene Did they tear the letters up together, or did she do it while he was at work Did they argue, did they agree, did one of them secretly resent it And even supposing they agreed, how did they then go about it Here’s a haunting would-you-rather. Would you rather tear up your own expressions of love, or the ones you had received”
But his most cringingly faint praise is reserved for his still living, yet non-death-fearing brother. Portrayed as frigidly cerebral, even Barnes’s warmest admiration comes off sounding like simmering resentment. Barnes says he had always attributed their differences to his belief that he had been breastfed and his brother bottle-fed. When his mother unexpectedly dispels this illusion, Barnes’ fallback position is that the formula they were given was different.
Barnes succeeds in making this eccentric, unpretentious book feel like a long, sometimes fractious chat with an engaging acquaintance: a My Dinner with Julian with the reader as his mute companion. Even when he drags, which he occasionally does, Barnes’s charm is undeniable. We forgive him as we might an uncle who tells great jokes but is prone to anxieties and rambling.
Although he rejects the notion that writers can achieve a kind of immortality in their work, Nothing to be Frightened Of is clearly Barnes’ effort to get the last word in, and despite his dismissiveness there is faint hope amidst the brusque cynicism: “Tastes change; truths become clichés; whole art forms disappear. Even the greatest art’s triumph over death is risibly temporary. A novelist might hope for another generation of readers — two or three if lucky — which may feel like a scorning of death; but it’s really just scratching on the wall of the condemned cell. We do it to say: I was here too.”