The Magazine

End of the Road

On the journey to oblivion.

Dec 15, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 13 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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Nothing To Be Frightened Of

by Julian Barnes

Knopf, 256 pp., $24.95

If death is an old joke that comes to each of us afresh, how is it no one is laughing? Because, as an old radio comedy show tagline had it, "'Tain't funny, McGee." No, death is someone else, most assuredly not the person dying, having the last laugh. But who, and why? And what, exactly, is the joke anyway?

Julian Barnes, fair to say after reading Nothing To Be Frightened Of, his ironically tinged tirade on the unreasonableness of death, doesn't get the joke, and writes at some length about his confusion and consternation over the matter. The question, for Barnes, is why do we have to die at all? He doesn't quite see the point of it. What is more, as he doesn't in the least mind telling us, he is terrified of death. This terror set in at early adolescence, and far from diminishing, seems to have increased in intensity and frequency as the disappointing event itself draws ever nearer. Death, not to put too fine a point on it, seems to him a very raw deal, and Nothing To Be Frightened Of is an extended threnody on just how raw it is.

A novelist, a member of the generation of English writers that includes Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, and Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes is the Francophile son of secondary school teachers of French. Best known for the novel Flaubert's Parrot, he would not, I think, disclaim or disdain being called a Flaubertian, for so he seems in his artistic taste, temperament, and general outlook. He is in his early sixties, childless by choice (he tells us), and recently made a widower upon the death of his wife, Pat Kavanagh, a well-known London literary agent. These biographical details are noteworthy, for Nothing To Be Frightened Of, though not intended as an autobiography, is nonetheless a highly autobiographical book.

Le réveil mortel, which Barnes translates as "the wake-up call to mortality," comes to people at different ages and stages in their lives. Death's alarm rings more insistently for some than others. Barnes claims to hear it at least once a day, often more: "as evening falls, as the days shorten, or towards the end of a long day's hiking," and other, less explainable times (he mentions its usual intrusion during the 6 Nations rugby tournament). Familiarity with the notion of death in him breeds neither contempt nor content--only fear.

Nothing To Be Frightened Of is, of course, an ironic title; Barnes finds everything to be frightened of about death: its probable pain, its likely squalor, its surprise, more likely shock, element. But above all he cannot quite get his mind around its promise of the Big O--not Oscar Robertson nor Barack Obama, but Oblivion, the state of absolute nullity that, for a faithless man or woman, is the first and finally crushing result of death. Barnes grew up in a household without religion "so," as he writes, "I had no faith to lose." He found, he tells us, religion and the guilt it brings "distracted [me] from [adolescent] masturbation." He never attended church regularly, and regards the story of Christianity as "a great novel," nothing more. No other religion, one gathers, has had the least allure for him. People who have told him that finding faith would wipe out his terror and alleviate his anxiety about death are talking to a wall, and not to the Wailing Wall, either.

As a thanatophobe and a Francophile, it is only natural that Barnes cite and quote many French writers on the subject of death. Jules Renard, the 19th-century French writer, whose name and aphorisms come up frequently in this book, in his Journal notes: "It is when faced with death that we all turn most bookish." And so it is that Montaigne, Pascal, Stendhal, Flaubert, Edmond de Goncourt, and Zola are all brought briefly onstage in Barnes's book, then whisked off; so, too, are the views and fates of Ravel, Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff, Sibelius; cameo roles are played by Thomas Browne, Edmund Wilson, Philip Larkin, and Bertrand Russell.