Julian Barnes considers the abyss
By AMY FINCH  |  December 22, 2008

GRIM REAPER: “Alas,” Barnes’s brother tells him, “all our wants are wants of future dead people.

Nothing To Be Frightened Of | By Julian Barnes | Alfred A. Knopf | 256 pages | $24.95
Novelist Julian Barnes is a brilliant writer, but he’s not self-revelatory. At least he wasn’t till Nothing To be Frightened Of, in which he gets naked about his terror of death and his atheism/agnosticism, and about the tense dance among these ideas. Barnes has grounded Nothing in his parents’ deaths and his childhood memories. From there he embarks on an expansive meditation on æsthetics and religion, on the inconstancy of memory and its relation to imagination, on the genesis of fiction and narrative, and on nonbelief and thanaphobia in literature and in himself.

Nothing is scholarly and analytical, but also touching — and often very funny. One of its motifs is the correspondence between Julian and his brother, Jonathan, who taught philosophy at Oxford and the Sorbonne. Julian can come across as cerebral and not exactly cuddly; Jonathan is a nippy gust of pure logic. Julian imagines, after he’s dead, “someone reading a book of mine and seeking out my grave in response.” He knows it’s the vain “future want of a dead person, or the want of a future dead person.” His brother points out, “Alas, all our wants are wants of future dead people.”

In his youth a “happy atheist,” Barnes once found the concept of God and the hereafter preposterous, one reason being the idea that God might be watching him jerk off — “even more absurd was the notion that all my dead ancestors might be lined up and watching too.” These days, the self-proclaimed blasphemous masturbator is more humble: “How can we be sure that we know enough to know?”

Barnes does know the terror of contemplating nonexistence, of “being pitchforked back into consciousness” in the wee hours, “beating pillow with fist and shouting ‘Oh no Oh No OH NO’ in an endless wail.” He questions his ability to express his horror properly, even as he allows that it might seem like an eruption of self-pity. “An inarticulate one, too. . . . For God’s sake, you’re a writer. . . . Can’t you face down death . . . more interestingly than this?”

Barnes reaches back through the ages for guidance — to Montaigne, Zola, Shostakovich, Stendahl, Jules Renard. “Flaubert said: ‘Everything must be learnt, from talking to dying.’ But who can teach us to die?” Nobody, Barnes concludes, since anyone with proper credentials isn’t talking.

Some of the black-comic episodes call to mind Woody Allen. Barnes details his youthful fear of airplanes, and how he would take along a book, such as Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet, in French, so that not only would his miraculously intact body be recovered holding the book, but “a stiffened forefinger” would be noting “a particularly admired passage, of which posterity would therefore take note.”

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