Death is a difficult subject to write about, but particularly when it is not coincidental but core to a book’s theme or plot. Julian Barnes slices the subject of death open as cleanly and as deeply as a professional forensic pathologist. Not one angle, not one idea stays untouched. He writes what most of us simply do not want to hear or think about. But it’s not all down-beat. Writing about death means writing about life leading up to it. The descriptions of people’s interesting lives and ways of coping with impending death are fascinating. It is still a discomforting read, but really, really well done – not a word out of place, not a superfluous, phrase or concept, each idea neatly segueing into the next one. You laugh at some witty anecdote, and in the next line, wham!, he drops a profoundly and distressingly accurate observation. It’s unavoidable – like literary bait-and-switch.
In the end, you have a headful of death. Which you probably had no intention of having. Like being doused with a bucket of ice water, this turns out to be not so much an entertaining memoir as a very astute and though-provoking dissection of the subject of death – or rather, the NOTHING aspect of it.
Death from every angle
Barnes looks at you from the cover of the book with his piercing eyes, and speaks to you on every page with piercing analysis, and sometimes piercing humour, cutting through all the wishy-washy sentiment, phobias, and comforting concepts about death that people and institutions have been going on about through the ages. He writes about his mother and father, how they got old, how they died. He mentions his wife, Pat Kavanagh, once or twice, and the book is dedicated to her (“To P.”). She died October 20, 2008, and Nothing to Be Frightened of originally came out January 1, 2008. You can imagine that death – hers in particular – must have been very much on his mind that year.
Two years after that, in 2011, he released his eleventh novel, The Sense of an Ending, which won the Man Booker Prize. But it took another two years before he wrote about the death of his wife. In 2013, he published a collection of essays, Levels of Life, in which he writes about grief and his love for her. The loss of her left him feeling as though he’d been;
“…dropped from a height of several feet, conscious all the time, having landed feet first in a rose bed with an impact that has driven you in up to the knees and whose shock has caused your internal organs to rupture and burst forth from your body.”
So have no doubt – he has confronted the death of someone he loved deeply. But he does not go into that in this book. In stead, he looks at death from every other aspect. He goes into death and schools’ religious teaching, death and sex, death and the church, death and beauty, coping mechanisms for death, beliefs about death, etc., and the views on death of famous artists and writers.
He takes apart the philosophical arguments about death given to him by his family, friends, and his brother, Jonathan Barnes, who specializes in ancient philosophy. Which leads to analyses of fiendishly difficult ideas. Barnes is not a writer to be read lightly, and I started this one with trepidation. As I expected, some references, especially to the ideas of French writers and philosophers, went right over my head. He writes:
“Perhaps I should warn you (especially if you are a philosopher, theologian or biologist) that some of this book will strike you as amateur, do-it-yourself stuff. But then we are all amateurs of our own lives. When we veer into other people’s professionalisms, we hope that the graph of our approximate understanding roughly shadows the graph of their knowledge; but we cannot count on it. I should also warn you that there are going to be a lot of writers in this book. Most of them dead, and quite a few of them French.” (That comment came 39 pages into the book! So I’d already noticed by then that I was out of my depth.)
Clear, punchy writing
But apart from giving readers a mental challenge, the book is not obscure. Despite all the complex ideas, Barnes’ writing style is straightforward, clear and punchy. The book simply starts, no index or contents page, no chapter headings, and without much ado, he leads you deeper and deeper into the analysis of the human reaction to, and thinking about, death. And not just the thinking of important historical figures, but – very candidly – his own thoughts and beliefs.
Sometimes it’s laugh-out-loud funny (something of an achievement, considering the subject), especially when he describes famous last words and famous last moments, and when he is his sharp-witted and irascible self:
“My niece C went to visit her [Barnes’ mother]. I called her to ask how it had gone, and how Ma was. ‘Completely bonkers when I got there, but once we started talking about make-up, completely sane.’ Suspecting the harshness of youth in my niece’s assessment, I asked – perhaps a little stiffly – what form being “bonkers” had taken. ‘Oh, she was very angry with you. She said you’d stood her up three days running for tennis, and left her there on court.’ OK, bonkers.” (p.104)
For a man who keeps his private life private, he discloses a great deal. When talking about his and his brother’s deafness, Barnes writes:
“When the ear-nose-and-throat specialist diagnosed my condition, I asked if there was anything I might have done to cause it. ‘You can’t give yourself Ménière’s Disease,’ he replied. ‘It’s congenital.’ ‘Oh good,’ I said. ‘Something I can blame my parents for.’” (p.67)
Now that’s acerbic – but I did laugh.
So what is there to be frightened of?
Amongst all the anecdotes of weird, sad, funny, and dastardly deaths, Barnes does reveal an admirable ideal – the writer, Alphonse Daudet, who, in his [Daudet’s] notes about dying, exhibited “proper, adult pit-gazing – the exact glance, the exact word, the refusal to aggrandize or to trivialize death – exhilarating.” (p.97). To explain the book’s title, he points out that it is the great and ultimate oblivion, or nothingness, of death, that is the actual terrifying thing.
“I find this in my diary, written twenty and more years ago. ‘People say of death, “There’s nothing to be frightened of.” They say it quickly, casually. Now let’s say it again, slowly, with re-emphasis. ‘There’s NOTHING to be frightened of.’ Jules Renard: ‘the word that is most true, most exact, most filled with meaning, is the word ‘nothing’’.” (p.99)
Barnes acknowledges his own increasing fear of this idea which he, as a human, is biologically programmed to be unable to process or accept.
“Only a couple of nights ago, there came again that alarmed and alarming moment, of being pitchforked back into consciousness, awake, alone, utterly alone, beating pillow with fist and shouting “Oh no Oh no OH NO” in an endless wail – the horror of the moment – the minutes – overwhelming what might, to an objective witness, appear a shocking display of exhibitionist self-pity.” (p.125)
Barnes shows us a lot of himself – but, I suspect, he reverts to his identity as an author and judiciously reveals what he wants to reveal. He shows sadness and weakness, anger and irritation, but only to the extent that they explain his point and make him seem like “Everyman” – and in that way he appeals to his readers. Unlike other authors whose memoirs or biographies are tell-all exposés of their weaknesses and mistakes, Nothing to Be Frightened of left me with the image of Barnes not as a broken, mourning man, but as the erudite scholar, the cool analyst who has confronted and dissected that “nothing” that everyone is so scared of.