Laying the Groundwork
Nothing to Be Frightened Of, By Julian Barnes, Vintage International (October 2009)
There is a moment in everyone’s life when suddenly, with brutal, unflinching clarity, you know that you will die. Mortality becomes suddenly tangible, claustrophobic, and—you realize in animalistic panic—nonnegotiable. British novelist Julian Barnes, in the perplexingly titled Nothing to Be Frightened Of, calls this moment the réveil mortel. Barnes is no stranger to the réveil (in French both “the waking up,” and the “alarm clock”), “that alarmed and alarming moment of being pitchforked back into consciousness, awake, alone, utterly alone, beating pillow with fist and shouting ‘Oh no Oh NO OH NO’ in an endless wail;” the wailer here is Barnes himself. In this somewhat indefinable book, Barnes undertakes to speak about his own unspeakable fear of death, as well as our attempts to muzzle it with God, memory, art, and science.
The book is not an autobiography, nor is it intended as a cure (“Ah, the therapeuto-autobiographical fallacy,” Barnes smirks). It is perhaps best described as a response to Flaubert’s statement that “everything must be learned, from reading to dying.” Death, the last thing we ever “do” seems so easy, something we all succeed in “doing.” What makes a “good” death? Is it grotesque to even ask? Seeking an answer, Barnes looks to his parents and grandparents, assessing what—genetically, narratively—remains after their deaths. He turns also to his brother, a philosopher, for, as Barnes says, “Philosopher, c’est apprendre à mourir.” The words are Montaigne’s, who is quoting Cicero, who is referring to Socrates, and this is typical of the way Barnes constructs an ancestry of inquiry. Literary relatives, Barnes’ “true bloodline,” are his interlocutors in this conversation of a book. Flaubert, who is one of these, girds Barnes for the undertaking: “One must be equal to one’s destiny, that’s to say, impassive like it. By dint of saying, ‘That is so! That is so!’ and of gazing down into the black pit at one’s feet, one remains calm.” Flaubertian pit-gazing is arguably the purpose of Nothing to Be Frightened Of, what Barnes calls “the realist’s need, and demand, to look where others averted their gaze...a human duty as well as a writerly one.”
In the 1920s, Barnes tells us, Finnish composer Jean Sibelius attended a “lemon table” at the Kämp restaurant in Helsinki, at which he and other diners were not only encouraged, but required to discuss death, for which the lemon is the Chinese symbol. Barnes convenes a lemon table of his own, bringing together, among others, Jules Renard (for whom Barnes becomes something of an amanuensis), Emile Zola, the Goncourt brothers, Flaubert, Montaigne, Arthur Koestler, Somerset Maugham, his doctor, and the composer Dmitri Shostakovich. Addressing us directly, Barnes gently invites the reader to join this eminent company, requiring us to examine death as well. The result is that we carry the book well beyond its ending: the lemon table exists as long as its members do.
Barnes has a critical mind, and summons tragicomedy without being morbid. He makes use of numbered lists as though afraid to let the one point that will “clear up this whole death thing” slip by. And Nothing to Be Frightened Of is artful. There is a novelist’s hand in details like Montaigne’s wish to die while planting his cabbages (which strikes one as so adorably French as to be ludicrous), and Roy Porter’s death of a heart attack while “taking home a bunch of flowers, which were in a moment transformed into his own roadside tribute.”
Pit-gazing, while hardly impassive as Flaubert promised, does exert a sense of calm over the text. Despite the occasional outburst (“sorry—interruption—irrational? IRRATIONAL? It’s the most rational thing in the world—how can reason not reasonably detest and fear the end of reason?”), Barnes examines his fear calmly, perhaps because it is rational. But can understanding fear succeed in overcoming it? Barnes answers with an analogy: “People tell me it’s a cliché, but it doesn’t feel that way to me.”
A disquisition on death cannot help but depend, in some measure, on this question of whether or not we can be conscious of it. Freud, certainly, believed we could not: “It is indeed impossible to imagine our own death; and whenever we attempt to do so, we can perceive that we are in fact still present as spectators.” Awaking at night in the grip of the réveil, we might respond, “It doesn’t feel that way to me,” but the doubt gives Barnes’ pit-gazing enterprise a sense of futility, as “perhaps what I think of as pit-gazing is only the illusion of truth-examination because deep down I do not—cannot—believe in the pit.” Is Barnes then merely demonstrating “terminal curiosity,” tantamount to that of Swiss physician Albrecht von Haller holding his own pulse as he dies? (Famous Last Words: “My friend, the artery ceases to beat.”) Perhaps—though his is no study of the circulatory system, but a look at the space between, and after, each final heartbeat.
Barnes is suspicious of the “atavistic need for narrative”: “If, as we approach death and look back on our lives, ‘we understand our narrative’ and stamp a final meaning upon it, I suspect that we are doing little more than confabulating.” He describes a leather pouffe in his childhood home that almost miraculously starts leaking scraps of his parent’s love letters. These—like Barnes’ text, like life itself—beg for an imposed storyline. But Barnes resists the meaningful conclusion: here, as in life, the scraps are never put back together. Yet where life stops is where the novelist starts—in silence, absence, and contradiction—and this is perhaps why the book succeeds. In sounding out death, Barnes is able to seek it in its own domain, “in the interstices of ignorance, the land of contradiction and silence,” and so to make the unspeakable speak: “to resolve—or make usefully vivid—the contradiction, and to make the silence eloquent.”