‘What’s all this about death, by the way?’ asked Julian Barnes’s mother, after she’d heard him on Desert Island Discs
. ‘I explained,’ he says by way of extraordinarily understated reply, ‘that I didn’t like the idea of it’. Which of us does? The best we might hope for is a kind of detachment that regards extinction as perhaps not the worst possible option, but even, as in the case of Barnes’s philosopher brother, one to be welcomed. But for Barnes, the thought of death comes ‘at least once each waking day’, and rarely peaceably; rather, it ‘gatecrashes my consciousness’. Even were it to remain an inevitability, he reckons, it would be a rather nicer arrangement to choose how and when you might go.
Death, of course, doesn’t only happen to us, although in those middle-of-the-night lightning apprehensions, it often feels as though it does. It happens to everyone we know, and everyone we don’t, everyone who came before us, and everyone who will come after. It is both an intensely isolating experience – as Orson Welles famously had it, ‘We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone’ – and also one that connects us to every other single living creature. And in Nothing to Be Frightened Of, Barnes examines it through the prism of parental death: a loss that most of us will sustain during the course of our lives, and which also has the curious effect of bumping us one place further up in the queue.
Entirely unsurprisingly, it is a work with extremely porous boundaries; in part, it is a partial biography of his parents, at times affectionate, at times exasperated, but always properly appraising, and as much of himself and his brother as sons as of his mother and father as parents. What emerges is the portrait of a real family, not one in which relationships are always easily forged or demonstrated, but which nonetheless binds a group of individuals together through time. But alongside this delicately scrutinising memoir runs an erudite exploration into our relationship with death that ranges over an eclectic selection of writers and thinkers, from Cicero and Plato (who, as Barnes’s brother drily notes, was not a fan of dead bodies) to Jacques Brel, Somerset Maugham and Barnes’s beloved Flaubert. There are frank discussions of religion by a writer who called himself an atheist in his youth but has switched to agnostic in later life. Does religion, as Montaigne suggested, have its roots in a ‘contempt for life’? Does it help? Does it hinder? And there are typically comical asides, from Barnes wondering what it would be like if his end came between the jaws of a crocodile to his friend Brian Moore explaining exactly why you didn’t want to die if you were a writer (‘some bastard will come along and finish it for you’).
Will Nothing to Be Frightened Of cure your fear of death? It’s unlikely. Will it make you feel a bit better about it for a while? Almost certainly. It is not a work of depressing grimness or nihilism – ‘I have never wanted the taste of a shotgun in my mouth’, writes Barnes – but of celebration, of understanding why it is we enjoy life so much that we are loath to part company with it. It is a facing up to, a squaring of the shoulders, a bit of ‘proper, adult pit-gazing,’ as Barnes describes the French writer Alphonse Daudet’s notes on dying, ‘a refusal either to aggrandise or to trivialise death’.