“I’m not afraid of dying,” Woody Allen once remarked, “I just don’t want to be there when it happens”. It’s a sentiment that would arouse a wry smile from the 62-year-old Julian Barnes, whose non-fiction narrative, Nothing to be Frightened Of, is a fine-tuned meditation on mortality and confronting the Grim Reaper.
“I don’t believe in God, but I miss him,” is how he begins, going on to clarify that at a time when Christianity in Europe has largely been reduced to ritual, he misses “the underlying sense of purpose and belief when confronted with religious art” – be it Mozart’s Requiem, Giotto’s paintings or Donatello’s sculptures.
The bulk of the book, though, is a series of deliberations on death and the human response to it. What saves this from terminal grimness or sentiment is that Barnes is never less than clear-sighted, his prose is skillfully elegant, and that there’s more than a touch of puckishness to the proceedings. Defining himself as one who fears death and has no faith, he speaks of his inexplicable night-terrors, with his motivation, quoting Shostakovich, being that “we have to make the fear [of death] familiar, and one way is to write about it”.
Though he clarifies that this is not his autobiography, there’s much here about his childhood, his parents, and of his reactions to their inevitable ageing and demise. His brother, the philosopher Jonathan Barnes, is also a continual presence, with the author spending much time recreating run-ins and debating finer points of philosophical musings on death. Clearly, there’s more than a bit of sibling rivalry that’s continued over the years.
Barnes quotes incessantly from others on the subject, invoking the words of writers and musicians from Stravinsky to Stendhal. In particular, he derives inspiration from 19th century French writer Jules Renard, who once wrote, “I don’t know if God exists, but it would be better for his reputation if He didn’t”.
Renard’s mode of writing was “compression, annotation, pointillism”, and this is something that Barnes has clearly taken to heart, for his writing is epigrammatic and quotable. “Religion tends to authoritarianism as capitalism tends to monopoly,” he writes in context of his loss of faith; and then, speaking of his craft, he asserts, “Doctors, priests and novelists conspire to present human life as a story progressing towards a meaningful conclusion”. Towards the end, he muses on memory, imagination and truth and his relationship to them as a novelist, coming up with another bon mot: “A novelist is something who remembers nothing yet records and manipulates different versions of what he doesn’t remember”.
Structurally, Nothing to be Frightened Of progresses by means of circularity and repetition and it must be admitted that there are times when this approach becomes much too discursive. Overall, though, the words that Barnes uses to describe the writing of Alphonse Daudet could well be applied to his book, too: “The exact glance, the exact word, the refusal either to aggrandize or to trivialize death – exhilarating”.