Michael Dirda on 'Nothing to Be Frightened Of'

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By Michael Dirda
Sunday, August 31, 2008


By Julian Barnes

Knopf. 244 pp. $24.95

If you're clever enough, or hire the right accountants and financial wizards, you can actually dodge paying taxes. The big boys do it all the time. But death -- that's quite another matter. Pace cryonics, there's no way of putting off forever what the philosopher Fontenelle -- who lived to be 99 -- called that "last unpleasant quarter hour." Sooner or later, all of us are going to close up shop. As Philip Larkin said in his mortality-haunted poem "Aubade," "Most things may never happen: this one will."

Now in his early 60s, the novelist Julian Barnes tells us that he thinks about death every day, and periodically finds himself bolting upright from sleep screaming, "No, no, no." (Ah, yes: Been there, done that.) As its brilliant title punningly hints, Nothing to Be Frightened Of offers an extended meditation on human mortality, but one that is neither clinical nor falsely consoling. Instead, the witty and melancholy author of Flaubert's Parrot and Arthur & George simply converses with us about our most universal fear:

"For me, death is the one appalling fact which defines life; unless you are constantly aware of it, you cannot begin to understand what life is about; unless you know and feel that the days of wine and roses are limited, that the wine will madeirize and the roses turn brown in their stinking water before all are thrown out for ever -- including the jug -- there is no context to such pleasures and interests as come your way on the road to the grave. But then I would say that, wouldn't I?"

Barnes admits that he sometimes views life as "an overrated way of passing the time." Yet generally the novelist regards the world with bittersweet benevolence: "I remember visiting an elderly and demented friend in hospital. She would turn to me, and in her soft, rather genteel voice which I had once much loved, would say things like, 'I do think you will be remembered as one of the worst criminals in history.' Then a nurse might walk past, and her mood change swiftly. 'Of course,' she would assure me, 'the maids here are frightfully good.' Sometimes I would let such remarks pass (for her sake, for my sake), sometimes (for her sake, for my sake) correct them. 'Actually, they're nurses.' My friend would give a cunning look expressing surprise at my naivety. 'Some of them are,' she conceded. 'But most of them are maids.' "

Throughout Nothing to Be Frightened Of, Barnes unsparingly portrays his parents' final years (laconic father; bossy, vain mother), turns for guidance to Montaigne, Stendhal, Flaubert, Jules Renard, Stravinsky and Ravel, and e-mails his brother, Jonathan, for his views on personal extinction. An expert on the Pre-Socratics and Aristotle, the older Barnes displays an appropriately stoic unconcern. Once, when this expert on ancient Greek was believed to be dying, he breathed what seemed likely to be his last words: "Make sure that Ben gets my copy of Bekker's Aristotle." The philosopher's wife found this "insufficiently affectionate."

While Julian examines various attitudes toward death and admits to envying those with religious faith, he himself is agnostic. As he says, "I don't believe in God, but I miss Him." ("Soppy," says his atheist brother.) He then goes on to discuss what the French call "le réveil mortel" -- the wake-up call to the reality of death, that recognition of personal mortality that marks the end of childhood. He also reviews what Montaigne called "the death of youth, which often takes place unnoticed. . . . The leap from the attenuated survival of senescence into non-existence is much easier than the sly transition from heedless youth to crabbed and regretful age." And, of course, he periodically addresses the modern art of living:

"Bumper stickers and fridge magnets remind us that Life Is Not a Rehearsal. We encourage one another towards the secular modern heaven of self-fulfillment: the development of the personality, the relationships which help define us, the status-giving job, the material goods, the ownership of property, the foreign holidays, the acquisition of savings, the accumulation of sexual exploits, the visits to the gym, the consumption of culture. It all adds up to happiness, doesn't it -- doesn't it? This is our chosen myth, and almost as much of a delusion as the myth that insisted on fulfillment and rapture when the last trump sounded and the graves were flung open, when the healed and perfected souls joined in the community of saints and angels. But if life is viewed as a rehearsal, or a preparation, or an anteroom, or whichever metaphor we choose, but at any rate as something contingent, something dependent on a greater reality elsewhere, then it becomes at the same time less valuable and more serious. Those parts of the world where religion has drained away and there is a general acknowledgment that this short stretch of time is all we have, are not, on the whole, more serious places than those where heads are still jerked by the cathedral's bell or the minaret's muezzin. On the whole, they yield to a frenetic materialism; although the ingenious human animal is well capable of constructing civilizations where religion coexists with frenetic materialism (where the former might even be an emetic consequence of the latter): witness America."

Certainly those gifted with religious faith possess an advantage over those without it: The dying believer will head straight for the door marked Enter, while the rest of us must settle for the one marked Exit. We can only hope to approach that portal with a bit of grace and aplomb. Barnes notes with approval Somerset Maugham's view that "the best frame of mind in which to conduct life" is that of "humorous resignation." One of Barnes's friends shrewdly suggests that "our only defence against death -- or rather, against the danger of not being able to think about anything else -- lies in 'the acquisition of worthwhile short-term worries.' " (This is a technique I myself tend to use: If you're a writer on deadline, you don't really have time to think about being dead.) During a kind of dialogue of self and soul, Barnes even encourages himself to imagine his own passing "through the eyes of others. Not those," he reminds himself, "who will mourn and miss you, or those who might hear of your death and raise a momentary glass; or even those who might say 'Good!' or 'Never liked him anyway' or ' Terribly overrated.' Rather," he continues, one must see death "from the point of view of those who have never heard of you -- which is, after all, almost everybody. Unknown person dies: not many mourn. That is our certain obituary in the eyes of the rest of the world."

Throughout Nothing to Be Frightened Of, Barnes periodically likes to stretch our minds with complex ethical dilemmas: "Would you rather die in the pain of being wrenched away from those you have long loved, or would you rather die when your emotional life has run its course, when you gaze out at the world with indifference, both towards others and towards yourself?" Nonetheless, he obviously admires the no-nonsense clarity of the aged Rossini, who scribbled the following on the manuscript of his Petite Messe solennelle:

"Dear God, well, here it is, finished at last, my Little Solemn Mass. Have I really written sacred music, or is it just more of my usual damn stuff? I was born for opera buffa, as You well know. Not much skill there, just a bit of feeling, that's the long and the short of it. So, Glory be to God, and please grant me Paradise. G. Rossini -- Passy, 1863."

While some people on their deathbeds dutifully rage against the dying of the light, Barnes prefers those who simply remain true to themselves, who depart this life with, say, a gesture of quiet courtliness: "A few hours before dying in a Naples hospital," the Flaubert scholar Francis Steegmuller "said (presumably in Italian) to a male nurse who was cranking up his bed, 'You have beautiful hands.' " Barnes calls this "a last, admirable catching at a moment of pleasure in observing the world, even as you are leaving it." Similarly, the poet and classicist "A.E. Housman's last words were to the doctor giving him a final -- and perhaps knowingly sufficient -- morphine injection: 'Beautifully done.' "

Beautifully done might also justly describe Nothing to Be Frightened Of. A friend once summed up Julian Barnes's own daily existence: "Got up. . . . Wrote book. Went out, bought bottle of wine. Came home, cooked dinner. Drank wine." Some might say: Not much of a life. Yet the philosopher Epicurus maintained that quiet routines like this offer our best response to death: Work hard at what you care about and enjoy moderate pleasures. It's really very good advice, but probably just a little too sensible for the unruly human heart. ·

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com.

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