A selection for my book group that discussed books about myth or religion, Nothing to Be Frightened of by Julian Barnes was the first non fiction pick of our almost two-year-old group. Several members had requested non-fiction, which those of you who read this blog know isn’t always my cuppa. Push comes to shove, I don’t think any non-fiction books are going into my apocalypse backpack for the end of the world.
Perhaps Apocalypse Backpack will be my band name. Anyhoo.
Since the group focuses of books of myth and religion, I’d been considering some of the new atheists like Dawkins or Hitchens. But they seemed so strident, and so “you’re dumb if you believe” that I wanted something a little more, well, moderate. And while I got that in the Barnes, which is his non-fiction meditation on death and dying from an agnostic or atheist point of view, I ended up wishing for a bit more stridency. But more on that in a bit.
I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him. That’s what I say when the question is put. I asked my brother, who has taught philosophy at Oxford, Geneva, and the Sorbonne, what he thought of such a statement, without revealing that it was my own. He replied with a single word: “Soppy.”
This paragraph is a perfect introduction to the book. It’s dryly funny, self-deprecating, and it introduces Barnes’ older brother Jonathan, a frequent sounding board in the book. Barnes relates details from historical philosophers and writers about death, and quotes friends of his. (Anyone who can identify who his friends Professor S and C are? A Guardian review made it sound as if it were obvious, but even my two most Barnesian friends didn’t know.) He relates stories from his past and from his family’s past to demonstrate the shifting nature of memory and narrative. He cops to being afraid of death and nothing (hence the pun in the title, which I appreciated) and being forgotten.
It’s well written. It’s clever. But it doesn’t tell a narrative–Barnes doesn’t finish the book in a different mind than he started it, at least in my reading. And he spirals in and out of stories and reminiscences, adding bits as he goes, which is skillfully done, yet felt repetitive. Finally, several in our group wished he’d shared more of himself, and been a little less chilly and distant, a little more strident if you will, to use the adjective from above.
And yet, thinking on this later, given the childhood and family Barnes describes in the book, I’d say that this intelligent book is about as honest and disclosing and warm (i.e. not very) as can be expected, perhaps even more.
This book was also interesting to read close in time to his novel Sense of an Ending. There is at least one character in there created from reality, and the themes of memory and death are continuations of what is here.
I found it strange that the hardcover US edition features a grim Barnes staring out at us. It’s not an inviting image. The cartoon-y grave on the trade paperback edition is cheekier, and more engaging I think. But what I wished for was the cover of the English hardover edition, which reproduces a photo discussed in the book, of a woman with her face scratched out. This, I think, is a spooky, unsettling image straight from the book that matches its tone best. (Though the English TPB edition is a close second, I think. Weird, how they obviously could not agree on one image for this book. Were four really needed?)
One final question. His book is dedicated to P, most likely his late wife, Patricia Kavanaugh who died of a brain tumor in October of 2008, while this book was published in March of that year. She is mentioned just once, in passing, in the entire book. Was Barnes aware of her tumor, and her impending death while writing this, a further example of his reluctance to actually inhabit his own exploration?