“The word that is most true, most exact, most filled with meaning, is the word ‘nothing.’” – Nothing To Be Frightened Of, by Julian Barnes
In Nothing To Be Frightened Of, Julian Barnes holds Death up as though it were a gorgeous, dangerous bauble, and examines it in every kind of light. He reflects on the thoughts of others on the topic; he visits cemeteries to seek out the graves of the famous as well as the obscure; he talks about the hopes and fears commonly experienced by all of us:
“As one who wouldn’t mind dying as long as I didn’t end up dead afterwards, I can certainly make a start on elaborating what my fears about dying might be.
One of the greatest of those fears is pre-death disability and decrepitude. It was a fate that befell first his father, then his mother. Like most of us, he wants no part of it but doesn’t know how it can be avoided with any degree of certainty.
Much that Barnes observes in everyday life pulls him back to death awareness. Recently, while in this country on a book tour, he took the train from New York to Washington. (This is a journey I myself have made many times, and it’s hard to describe the soul deadening expanse of waste land that sweeps past- I always find myself thinking of Scott Fitzgerald’s “ash heaps.”) Just south of Trenton, Barnes espies a burial ground:
“And there, at the southern end of this unmenacing strip, is a cheery American moment: a sign proclaiming BRISTOL CEMETERY–LOTS AVAILABLE. It reads as if the pun on ‘lots’ is intended: come and join us, we have much more space than our rivals.
Not long ago, the author celebrated – if that overly chipper word can be used here- his sixtieth birthday. He had specifically asked friends and family to decline giving him any gifts on the occasion and so was annoyed by the arrival of a small package. It proves to contain a lapel badge with a battery that enables the legend “60 today” to flash with manic frequency. But when he sees a manufacturer’s warning on the back of the box, he cannot help but laugh out loud: “WARNING: May Cause Interference With Pacemakers.”
The book is full of droll stories like these. I was amazed at how often I too laughed out loud. But the somber passages do give pause. Here Barnes is comparing Death to God:
“Death can’t be talked down, or parlayed into anything; it simply declines to come to the negotiating table. It doesn’t have to pretend to be Vengeful or Merciful, or even Infinitely Merciless. It is impervious to insult, complaint, or condescension. “Death is not an artist”: no, and would never claim to be one. Artists are unreliable; whereas death never lets you down, remaining on call seven days a week, and happy to work three consecutive eight-hour shifts.
There’s more, but you get the idea, I’m sure.
Not only is Barnes’s own writing superb, but he quotes from many other writers whose observations are eloquent and provocative. A lifelong student of French literature and culture, he treats us to numerous bon mots from the likes of Montaigne, Zola, and Flaubert. And he frequently cites an astonishing writer with whom I was not familiar until now: Jules Renard.
The quotation used in the title of this post comes from Renard’s writings.
I also like Henry James’s definition of life as “a predicament before death.” ( I seem to recall reading elsewhere that at a time when he thought he fatally ill, James referred to death as “the distinguished thing.”)
When Turgenev turned sixty, he wrote the following to Flaubert:
“‘This is the start of the tail-end of life. A Spanish proverb says that the tail is the hardest part to flay…Life becomes completely self-centred–a defensive struggle with death; and this exaggeration of the personality means that it ceases to be of interest, even to the person in question.’
The real meat of this book is the vexed question of how to face death with equanimity and courage when you possess no compelling religious convictions. This is the situation in which Barnes, like many of his fellow Britons, currently finds himself. He relates the following anecdote about the great twentieth century philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell. Russell, a lifelong atheist, was asked what he would do if, after death, he found himself in the presence of the Deity whose existence he had, in life, steadfastly denied. His reply: “‘I would go up to Him, and I would say, ‘You didn’t give us enough evidence.’”
Now this clever riposte is in the great tradition of bracing British wit, but one doesn’t necessarily have to agree with it. There are those who feel that there is plenty of evidence of God’s hand in the visible world. Are they deluding themselves? It is impossible to say with certainty one way or another.
“Fiction is made by a process which combines total freedom and utter control, which balances precise observation with the free play of the imagination, which uses lies to tell the truth and truth to tell lies.
Whenever I read a book that I know I’m going to review on the blog, I place post-it notes in various places that I know I want to come back to or get quotes from. I have never used as many post-it notes on any book as I have on Nothing To Be Frightened Of. It’s a mere 244 pages, yet so crammed with riches – I just couldn’t stop myself.