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.