Nothing to Be Frightened Of

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

Nothing to Be Frightened Of is a clever, learned, and at times somewhat repetitive exercise in whistling in the dark, as Julian Barnes gingerly creeps up on the fear of death that he admits provoked occasional anxiety in his younger years but has now become a serious preoccupation for this distinguished literary senior citizen. Born in 1946, Barnes has had a fruitful career as a writer of elegant fiction and ruminative essays, and he has not previously demonstrated any discernable tendency to balk at humanity’s inexorable march toward the graveyard. Recently, however, his thoughts have turned to speculations as to what awaits on the other side of corporeal existence, and the result is a combination of essay and memoir that compulsively interrogates this question.

Barnes begins Nothing to Be Frightened Of jauntily enough by joking that “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him.” This mildly flippant tone continues through the first of the book’s several considerations of his family history, as he initially serves up a light, amusing sketch of his parents and their forebears that only occasionally foreshadows the darker reflections to come. His mother, an atheist, and his father, an agnostic, passed away in the modern, antiseptic surroundings of a residential home and a hospital, respectively, and as Barnes begins to think about how he will meet his death, it becomes clear that something about their manner of going deeply disturbs him.

The first step in what turns out to be an extended tour through Barnes’s personal and intellectual history is an autobiographical reminiscence of his failure to develop any sort of religious faith, a perfectly understandable consequence of his parents’ attitude toward religion. His mother, who claimed not to fear death, refused to have any of what she called “that mumbo-jumbo” at her completely secular funeral; his father, her henpecked and submissive husband, was so dominated by her that he seemed to have few views of any substance about anything, or at least none that his children could perceive. Even when Barnes went through his phase of adolescent rebellion, he had little against which to rebel, and so he came away with the impression that religion was a mildly foolish set of superstitions in which a few misguided people found consolation.

Although Barnes never puts it in quite such unequivocal terms, one senses that for the first time in his life he has begun to have doubts about being a doubter, and he is now troubled by the fact that, having never had faith, he can never return to it as a source of consolation. Deprived of confidence in a future life, he clearly feels a sense of urgency concerning the achievement of some sort of personal equilibriumwhether it be based on logic, conviction, or simply the opinions of respected authoritiesthat will enable him to conquer, or at least control, his anxiety regarding his existence after death.

Barnes’s consequent search for peace of mind is conducted through a series of inquiries that, in an often repetitive manner that at times borders on the obsessive, engages with his favorite authors and his sole remaining close relative as the likeliest sources of meaningful answers to his queries. The relative in question is Barnes’s brother Jonathan, an academic philosopher who, in the portrait on display here, impresses as a cold, unsympathetic, and on the whole extremely unsatisfactory source of spiritual comfort. His responses to his brother’s requests for advice are unfailingly dismissive and at times contemptuous: Jonathan denies any knowledge of their parents’ emotions, claims to be uninterested in (and therefore immune to) his own doctor’s health warnings, and fobs Barnes off with injunctions to read Aristotle and David Hume when serious philosophical issues are raised. After several such interactions, one cannot help but wonder about the point of these humiliations. Is Barnes simply adding to the sense of dread that his inability to deal with death has engendered, or is he settling a fraternal score with a lifelong source of irritation? Whatever the answer, Jonathan is a strange and inexplicable presence in what purports to be a meditation on facing the threat...

(The entire section is 1727 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

Booklist 104, no. 22 (August 1, 2008): 26.

The Boston Globe, August 31, 2008, p. C5.

The Guardian, March 8, 2008, p. 9.

Harper’s Magazine 317 (October, 2008): 79.

JAMA: Journal of the American Medical Association 300, no. 12 (December 24, 2008): 2922-2923.

Kirkus Reviews 76, no. 12 (June 15, 2008): 93.

Los Angeles Times, September 29, p. E6.

New Statesman 137 (March 10, 2008): 56.

The New York Review of Books 55, no. 15 (October 9, 2008): 38-40.

The New York Times Book Review, October 5, 2008, p. 1.

Publishers Weekly 255, no. 28 (July 14, 2008): 56.

The Times Literary Supplement, March 28, 2008, p. 13.

The Washington Post Book World, August 31, 2008, p. BW10.