As Dorothy mentioned in her review of Nothing to Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes, she doesn’t think about death very often. I don’t either, there being so much about life that keeps me occupied. But between reading this book and having my dog euthanized, I’ve found myself thinking about death quite a bit lately.
The book is far from being depressing, however. In fact, I found myself smiling, or giggling frequently or at the very least, appreciating irony and Barnes’s wry wit. At the same time the book was completely serious. I don’t know how Barnes managed to do it, but he found a perfect balance in his discussion of death.
Nothing to Be Frightened Of has a quiet conversational feel to it. Barnes weaves in an out and around topics and stories, takes off on a tangent, comes back to where he was before only to follow a different lead and away we go to find it comes back again but this time things look a little different.
While the book is about death, it is also about memory and religion. Barnes describes himself as a “happy atheist” and begins the book “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him,” a statement his philosopher brother declares “soppy.” The frame of religion plays a big part in how people view death. Barnes makes some intriguing observations and comparisons of viewpoints you’ll have to read the book to discover since I am not feeling up for starting a debate on religion. Maybe another time.
The elements of the book that touch on memory struck a chord with me. I have often thought along the same lines as Barnes:
Memory is identity. I have believed this since–oh, since I can remember. You are what you have done; what you have done is in your memory; what you remember defines who you are; when you forget your life you cease to be, even before your death.
To me, this seems even more terrible and tragic than death.
Barnes tells stories about his parents and their respective deaths. He has much to say about his older brother who insists that memory is not reliable. Barnes persists in comparing what he and his brother remember about certain events and people and often they are so wildly different you have to agree with his brother. I must say though that I really enjoyed the parts in which he talks about his brother. They seem good friends but yet there is hint of sibling rivalry and teasing running beneath it and I will wager that when they argue it can get loud.
Barnes thinks about death often, he can’t help himself he says. But in writing about death it isn’t all about him. He balances the family memoir with anecdotes about the deaths of famous writers and composers and the occasional philosopher. He gleans much from Jules Renard whose diary I read not long ago–or I should say that I read part of his diary since there are a thousand plus pages of it.
I can’t do Nothing to Be Frightened Of justice. It really is excellent reading and I highly recommend it. Don’t let the subject scare you off. It is, as I mentioned earlier, not depressing by any means. I would say it is the most enjoyable book about death I have ever read.