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Nothing To Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes

Nothing To Be Frightened Of (original 2008; edition 2009)

by Julian Barnes

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Title:Nothing To Be Frightened Of
Authors:Julian Barnes
Info:Vintage (2009), Paperback, 256 pages
Collections:Your library, Religion & Ethics
Tags:British Writers

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Nothing to Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes (2008)

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Showing 1-5 of 23 (next | show all)
Memoir, of necessity, treads old ground, well-worn paths. For those ruminants transfixed by a particular idea or motif, these routes can get very rutted indeed. Julian Barnes claims to be an inveterate death idler, concerned with his own death, with the deaths of his family members, the deaths of 19th century French writers, and death in general. His brother, the Aristotelian philosopher Jonathan Barnes, would say he is soppy. It is a rebuke that Julian takes to heart, both because he suspects it of himself already but also because he imagines it might mark the division between himself and his histrionically rational brother. And so his thoughts meander here and there without clear direction bounded only by death as an overarching theme, God as a (probably) non-existent delimiter of existence, and a storage box of quotations, literary historical anecdotes, and epitaphs.

The best of the book is probably the opening 70 pages. Here Barnes is reflecting on his family history, often with cutting interjections from his older (and wiser?) brother. The tone is light and self-deprecating, and the effect is utterly charming. Then the book moves into God-bothering. Does he exist or doesn’t he? And if he does, what’s he like? But probably he doesn’t, right? It’s an unfortunate turn because it has no viable means of taking us forward. Barnes instead is forced to dip into his box of quotes and anecdotes as the work takes on a workmanly tone - one damn word after another. But don’t give up on it. Eventually Barnes winds his way back to his family and his earlier thoughts. He walks the same paths again and again, even to the point of reusing numerous personal anecdotes and literary quotations. But then those reuses themselves begin to take on a special character as Barnes’ native talent for narrative, as opposed to research and philosophical argument, takes hold. And so the end of the book causes you to reconsider the opening, not least because Barnes learns that a number of his family stories were just wrong. Memory played false is corrected by narrative.

Julian Barnes is a fine writer, so nearly any topic he turned his hand to would have made compelling reading. Here, your reaction may depend upon whether you share his affinity for dread in the face of his own death. (He admits to a creeping suspicion that this might be an unacknowledged ‘writerly’ preoccupation.) I don’t. But I suspect for those who do, this book will be even more pleasurable than it was for me. Gently recommended. ( )
  RandyMetcalfe | Aug 2, 2016 |
Musings on belief (or not) in God; acceptance (or not) of death; the accuracy (or not) of memory; and the comfort (or not) of family. Spiced with little-known (to me) stories from literary history, this was an entertaining and sometimes enlightening piece on facing up to death. Reminded me of Kundera books I've enjoyed. My first Barnes, but I'll read more. ( )
  bibleblaster | Jan 23, 2016 |
Novelist Julian Barnes’s 2008 memoir, Nothing to Be Frightened Of, offers a fascinating look at a variety of topics, including aging, death, and the existence of God. The author wrote the book just as he was turning 60, the point in life that so many of us begin to comprehend in more than just general terms how short life really is. Interestingly, he declares that, as a young man, he was an atheist, but that his views on religion have somewhat softened now, and today he considers himself to be an agnostic.

Barnes admits that he fears death. His fear, however, is based on the idea that he will forever cease to exist, not from any apprehension that he will have to face some kind of final judgment to determine where he will spend eternity. As he puts it, “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.” Why does he miss Him? Because God, who has evolved all the way from the vengeful God of the Old Testament to the merciful God of the New Testament, seems open to “negotiation.” Death, on the other hand, “simply declines to come to the negotiating table.”

As Barnes explores his own feelings about life, death, and the existence or nonexistence of an afterlife, he recalls the members of his immediate family, his childhood and adolescence, and his current relationship to friends and family. Barnes and his brother were not raised in a religious household and, partly as a consequence, their views on life and death are similar. If anything, the views of the author’s brother seem to be even more firmly felt than his because, at least according to Barnes, his brother (philosopher Jonathan Barnes) is an avowed atheist who does not fear death in the least.

Despite its general theme, Nothing to Be Frightened Of is not some somber declaration of one man’s pessimistic take on the end of life. Barnes, in fact, uses a surprising amount of humor to make his points and balance the tone of his book. Some of that humor is his own, some of it he attributes to others (such as William Faulkner’s declaration that a writer’s obituary should read simply: “He wrote books, then he died.” Page 129).

Representative of Barnes’s own sense of humor is this bit from page 220 in which he realizes that every writer, no matter how great his fame, will one day have a “last reader”:

“At some point – it must logically happen – a writer will have a last reader…At some point, there will be a last reader for me too. And then that reader will die. And while, in the great democracy of readership, all are theoretically equal, some are more equal than others…Indeed, I was about to make some authorial gesture of thanks and praise to the ultimate pair of eyes…to examine this book, this page, this line. But then logic kicked in: your last reader is, by definition, someone who doesn’t recommend your books to anyone else. You bastard! Not good enough, eh?”

Bottom Line: Nothing to Be Frightened Of is a thoroughly enjoyable memoir guaranteed to entertain while leaving the reader with plenty to ponder. ( )
  SamSattler | Apr 9, 2015 |
I finished this meditation on mortality out of stubbornness, but there's no reason anyone else should. Barnes's stated theme, "I don't believe in God, but I miss Him," accurately captures the sappy nostalgic navel-gazing to come. ( )
  AThurman | Dec 7, 2014 |
With his usual wit and wisdom, Barnes manages to take the reader through a thorough exploration of the subject, which is ‘the elephant in the room’ of humanity, death. It is what everyone wants to talk about and no one wants to talk about. It gets us all in the end and death can work backwards effecting our everyday approach to life. In what can only be described as a writer's understanding of how to tell a story in which the end is always present, Barnes takes us through the history of great thinking about death. He covers philosophy, art, tells us what great people have said about death and their last words. Barnes also shares his own observations about the life and death of his parents, his non-belief in God and the longings, which effect his perception of what death, and dying might be like. In the end, one wonders if the sibling rivalry between himself (a novelist) and his brother (a philosopher) might be symbolic of the struggle between our desires for some kind of emotional closure, perhaps even some kind of salvation and the cold logic that there can be no other life when life expires. I’ll take Barnes as guide on any tour and any subject, even one as illusion busting and morose as death, because, by golly, it feels like I’m more ALIVE when in the company of this great writer. ( )
  a_forester | Sep 12, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 23 (next | show all)
I think you should read it if:

a) you are dying
b) you are living
c) you have realised that a and b are the same.
added by peterbrown | editBrick: a literary journal, David Thomson (Feb 16, 2010)
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I don't believe in God, but I miss Him.
This is not, by the way, "my autobiography." Nor am I "in search of my parents." . . . Part of what I'm doing -- which may seem unnecessary -- is trying to work out how dead they are. My father died in 1992, my mother in 1997. (pp. 35-6)

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 in and of our own lives. . . . I should also warn you that there are going to be a lot of writers in this book. Most of them are dead, and quite a few of them French. (p. 39)
...perhaps a sense of death is like a sense of humour. We all think the one we've got - or haven't got - is just about right, and appropriate to the proper understanding of life. It's everyone else who's out of step.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0307269639, Hardcover)

Two years after the best-selling Arthur & George, Julian Barnes gives us a memoir on mortality that touches on faith and science and family as well as a rich array of exemplary figures who over the centuries have confronted the same questions he now poses about the most basic fact of life: its inevitable extinction.

If the fear of death is “the most rational thing in the world,” how does one contend with it? An atheist at twenty, an agnostic at sixty, Barnes looks into the various arguments for and against and with God, and at the bloodline whose archivist, following his parents’ death, he has become—another realm of mystery, wherein a drawer of mementos and his own memories (not to mention those of his philosopher brother) often fail to connect. There are other ancestors, too: the writers—“most of them dead, and quite a few of them French”—who are his daily companions, supplemented by composers and theologians and scientists whose similar explorations are woven into this account with an exhilarating breadth of intellect and felicity of spirit.

Deadly serious, masterfully playful, and surprisingly hilarious, Nothing to Be Frightened Of is a riveting display of how this supremely gifted writer goes about his business and a highly personal tour of the human condition and what might follow the final diagnosis.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:20:03 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

"I don't believe in God, but I miss him." So begins this book, which is a family memoir, an exchange with his brother (a philosopher), a meditation on mortality and the fear of death, a celebration of art, an argument with and about God, and a homage to the writer Jules Renard. Barnes also draws poignant portraits of the last days of his parents, recalled with great detail, affection and exasperation. Other examples he takes up include writers, "most of them dead and quite a few of them French," as well as some composers, for good measure. Although he cautions us that "this is not my autobiography," the book nonetheless reveals much about Barnes the man and the novelist: how he thinks and how he writes and how he lives. At once deadly serious and dazzlingly playful, this is a wise, funny and constantly surprising tour of the human condition.--From publisher description.… (more)

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