Nothing to be frightened of by Julian Barnes

Do you think the title can be read in two ways: an exhortation not to be afraid or if  there is NOTHING why should we be frightened of it?

Julian Barnes was born in 1946 and he started to write this book in 2005 when he was nearly 60 and finished it when he was 62.  He is still alive, death has not caught up with him yet.  In fact a new short story of his appeared in the Guardian on 23 January 2010.

Nothing to be frightened of is a meandering book.  It is not autobiography, not even a memoir.  He is very discreet about his personal life although we do learn something about Barnes’ parents, brother and grandparents.  He doesn’t have a lot of good things to say about his parents, especially his mother.

The book is written in a series of short epistles and provides us with the thoughts of Barnes and many famous dead people on death: Montaigne, Stendhal, Flaubert, Jules Renard, Stravinsky and Ravel among others.

The book opens with “I don’t believe in God but I miss Him.” Later he writes: “If I called myself an atheist at twenty, and an agnostic at fifty and sixty, it isn’t because I have acquired more knowledge in the meantime: just more awareness of ignorance.  How can we be sure we know enough to know.” Later he writes about those people who are convinced there is an afterlife and when meeting him in heaven might give him the old ‘I told you so routine’.  Could he bear to be wrong?

Barnes tells us that people used to talk more openly about death.  He quotes the great composer Shostakovitch: “We should think more about it and accustom ourselves to the thought of death.  We can’t allow the fear of death to creep up on us unexpectedly.  We have to make the fear familiar, and one way is to write about it ….. “

Despite the subject matter there is humour.  Barnes writes of the geneticist, J. B. S. Haldane who remarked that if there is a God he must be inordinately fond of beetles as there are 350,000 different species of the creatures.

Barnes is able to laugh at himself. He writes about his last reader as inevitably he assumes there will be one.  He waxes sentimental at first until he realises that if he or she is the last reader then they have not recommended his book to anyone else: “You bastard!  Not good enough, eh?  You prefer that trivial stuff which is all the rage in your superficial century … I was about to mourn your passing, but I’m getting over it fast.  You really are so mean-spirited, so idle-minded, so lacking in critical judgement? Then you don’t deserve me.  Go on, fuck off and die.  Yes, YOU.”

Julian Barnes is one of the great writers of our time and I found this book fascinating.  It has nearly got me over my preoccupation with death, just have to read The Book Thief and that might be that.

Read more about Julian Barnes at his website:


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