I recently finished Julian Barnes’s book Nothing to Be Frightened Of, and I thought it was great, although I also couldn’t help but wonder what it was about an aging man’s musings about death that interested me so much. It’s not a subject I’m generally drawn to or a subject that particular intrigues me. It’s only very occasionally that I feel a mild dread at the thought of my own death, and I’m certainly not haunted by it. I’m pretty good at avoiding the whole subject, which I imagine is what most people do (or am I wrong about this? Do most people spend a lot of time fearfully contemplating their own death, and I’m the one who is stupidly oblivious?).
Either I’m terrified of death on an unconscious level and it’s my unconscious that led me to this book, or I read it for the reason my consciousness believes, which is that I’ve been fascinated by Barnes for a while and that I love essayistic nonfiction and so it made perfect sense to see what this book was all about. And I can report that it’s a great read, no matter what your feelings on the subject are.
The book rambles here and there and has no discernible organizational structure, but this matches Barnes’s subject and mood. He’s grappling with one of the biggest, scariest, most mysterious experiences any of us can grapple with, so it makes sense to me that he wouldn’t manage to be organized about it. It strikes me as perfectly appropriate to wander from topic to topic and to return again and again to the same pivotal experiences. I don’t want to imply that the book is repetitious; while Barnes circles around to the same topics again and again, each time he discusses them, they feel fresh.
These topics include his family history, his relationship with his brother, his process of learning what it means to die, his conversations with friends on the subject, what his favorite writers have written about death, and what the deaths of these writers were like. He weaves the biographical and autobiographical material together with passages that look at the subject from philosophical, religious, and artistic points of view, and the whole thing is charmingly and fascinatingly readable.
Barnes comes across as someone terrified of death but doing his best to stay calm, and turning to the thing he knows best to help him out: writing. The book itself comes to seem like a way of staving off death, a fact that Barnes himself acknowledges. It’s hard not to believe that as long as he keeps writing, surely he won’t die. And yet Barnes isn’t deluding himself — he’s well aware that he could die while in the middle of writing, which would leave an artefact entirely different from the one he wanted to leave behind. He also knows that being a famous writer will only buy him a little bit of time before he is forgotten entirely and loses even that shred of immortality — fame. He thinks about the person who will inevitably one day exist: his very last reader. He is at first grateful to this reader for the attention he or she is paying him, but then he gets angry: if this is his last reader, then that person by definition has failed him by neglecting to convince anyone else to pick up one of his books.
Barnes looks around at the various sources of comfort in the face of death, searching for some reason to keep from despairing, and yet they all fail him. He’s agnostic, pretty well convinced that there is no God out there of the traditional sort, and yet not wanting to take the risk of deciding it for sure. But even if God does exist, he decides that wouldn’t be much comfort, and if God doesn’t exist that’s no comfort either, and who’s to say that if there is a God, that God isn’t cruel and doesn’t take pleasure in torturing us all? Philosophy brings no comfort either. His brother is a philosopher, but Barnes finds his way of thinking foreign to his own more artistic and less strictly logical sensibilities.
As I was reading the book I began to wonder if it would make me start fearing death in a way I hadn’t before. Barnes is pretty convincing after all. It hasn’t, though, which is good. I think it has made me more sympathetic to those who aren’t as oblivious as I am and who do fear death. I think fearing death is a perfectly logical and understandable response, and I’m lucky not to have felt the fear much myself, and I’ll probably fear it more as I get older, as most people probably do. But for now, I’ll just admire Barnes for doing his best to face the subject head on and trying make sense of the thing that is probably the hardest thing possible to make sense of.