Darkness visible

Julian Barnes has mortality in his sights in these unusual, far from grim meditations

By Richard Eder
August 31, 2008
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Nothing to Be Frightened Of
By Julian Barnes
Knopf, 243 pp., $24.95

Julian Barnes tries; he tries mightily and repeatedly in these protracted variations on and digressions away from the Big Last Thing. But in the end, like Emily Dickinson, he hasn't been able to Stop for Death, and plainly (barring a late unwelcome word before this gets into print) Death hasn't Stopped for Him.

"Nothing to Be Frightened Of" circles the age-old theme we starkly put as: "I am going to die." Back in the 15th century the Scottish poet William Dunbar wrote "Lament for the Makers," a desolate landscape of death's depredations. The phrase "timor mortis conturbat me" (fear of dying torments me) tolls at every fourth line.

Barnes is a British novelist of humane irony, antic imagination, and unsettling perceptiveness. He constructs a many-leveled scaffolding of argument, memoir, literary reference, and musings all around the dark pit. He doesn't quite convince us he is staring into it.

"Oh no, oh no, OH NO!" he reports wailing after awaking to a sudden death thought. And then reflects that as a writer he ought to have found better words. Perhaps that only seems frivolous; it could be the medieval trope of death stripping the beauty of her looks, the rich man of his wealth, the sovereign of his state, and - here - the artist of his voice.

Mainly, though, Barnes writes around death more than about it. Between the mortis and the conturbat falls a self-conscious beat of the breath. Medusa's contemporary visage lacks snakes; there is no defiance in staring into it. Better to juggle it.

The juggle takes us traveling through a variety of precincts. One of the most compelling is Barnes's wary, still estranged treatment of his mother and father. Both were schoolteachers, she bossy and opinionated, he mild and ironic. As a philosopher brother put it: "I incline to think that the strongest feeling Mother ever allowed herself was severe irritation, while Father no doubt knew all about boredom."

His true parents, Barnes insists, were writers and composers; his filial account has more to do with remains than lives. He bundled odds and ends from the parental house in trash bags; then, economically, emptied the contents into the dump and saved the bags. Hearing a metal cowbell that had been purchased by his father clanking down "felt slightly cheap: as if I had buried my parents in a paper bag rather than a proper coffin."

Seeming coldness; in fact something a little different. Barnes applies life-mocked-by-death to his mother and father, not so much exploring who they were as "trying to work out how dead they are."

He makes any number of excursions away from the death theme before circling back. Some are commonplace - on free will, memory, the old philosophic argument about the reality of reality - and wanderingly unfocused. His strength lies in particulars, and many are splendid.

As the author of "Flaubert's Parrot" and "Cross Channel," he is one of the very few British writers (Laurence Sterne, Robert Louis Stevenson) who genuinely illuminate France. He tells of teaching at a French Catholic school where two of the priests joust in intellectual glee over whose village gets "a better quality of Holy Ghost coming down at Pentecost."

An atheist at 20, at 60 he has become an agnostic. Religion intrigues him; he quotes Wittgenstein, who, though an unbeliever, wrote in one of his last notes that "life can educate one to a belief in God." He asks whether being a believer enhances the experience of religious art. (He might have asked whether religious art enhances the experience of religion.)

The subject of death pirouettes, departs, returns. Rachmaninoff's fear of it could only be calmed by eating pistachios; friends handed him a bag before a train trip. Gogol died screaming, Diaghilev laughing. Shostakovich's music, Barnes writes, was imbued with death motifs to the point of incurring Stalinist censure. Beethoven instructed a violist to perform the slow movement of Quartet Number 15 "so that the flies drop dead in mid-air."

How to confront the idea of death? Barnes quotes Montaigne, who advises thinking regularly about it to make it familiar. He is not sure; better perhaps to ignore it and, at the end, deny it. Writing is a way to escape the fear of death: Would he give it up in exchange for no more fear? No, but possibly in exchange for no more death.

He cites but rejects various traditional consolations; he wants to go on living, perhaps reincarnated. He could try having children, being a Jew (silliness looms) or (silliness lifts) "[discovering] quite new sorts of disappointment." Curiously he doesn't really allow that ill health, decrepitude, and weariness with life may ease the fear of death - even though he quotes Montaigne's remark that the line lies not between life and death but between old age and death.

Barnes is a writer of impulsive insights, many of them remarkable, rather than of a steadily advancing path of thought. Journeys, not destinations, interest him; the journey here is rather long and tends to drift.

Perhaps the principal weakness among the pleasures is, once again, an odd lack of intensity in confronting the death theme. Some years ago Barnes edited and translated a memoir by Alphonse Daudet recounting the agony of tertiary syphilis. Its epigrammatic, anecdotal, blithely digressive style made the pain come dreadfully to life, and the pain held the digressions together. Clearly Barnes has been influenced; the difference is that Daudet had the pain; Barnes has only a fear and only, here, from time to time.

Richard Eder reviews books for several publications.

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