The perfect epigraph for “Nothing to Be Frightened Of” would be the haunting Latin refrain which concludes each stanza of a poem by the 15th century Scottish writer William Dunbar: “Timor Mortis conturbat me.” (“The fear of death distresses me.”) It is certainly the leitmotif that runs through this odd book -- part family memoir, part meditation on death and dying -- by British novelist Julian Barnes. If he were not such a dedicated Francophile -- to the point of literary tunnel vision -- he might have chosen it. But as it is, most of the literary references which pepper the pages of this book come from French writers -- and largely from those of the 19th century.
French might be said to be in Barnes’ blood: his father was a teacher of the language. His good English education has ensured that Shakespeare will crop up, but it is more likely that English writers who are themselves Francophiles (like W. Somerset Maugham) will bat for England on Barnes’ literary team. For the most part, as he looks for answers to the nature of death and fear of his own mortality, it is Alphonse Daudet, Gustave Flaubert, the Goncourt brothers, Emile Zola and -- most often of all -- a much less well-known French writer, Jules Renard. Clearly French literature is important to Barnes, and anyone who has read his novel “Flaubert’s Parrot” knows that his passion enabled him to produce a marvelously vibrant tale that breathed life into a long-dead master. But as he bounces from one anecdote to another about these writers’ lives -- or deaths -- the book at hand seems not only disorganized but also claustrophobic. Sometimes biculturalism makes you simply long for multiculturalism.
Barnes is a masterly novelist, at his best able to summon up characters of all ages and types. But here he emerges as a chilly and tentative character, emotionally challenged and technically hobbled. Judging by his portraits of his parents and of his older brother, coldness and remoteness seem to be familial traits. His only sibling, a totally rationalist philosophy professor, appears frequently as a weird kind of counterpoint to the author: a contrast only in being even chillier and more remote, more certain in his beliefs (atheist to Julian’s agnostic), more emotionally constipated. This is obviously intended to make Barnes seem warmer, but it fails to do so: rather it highlights the qualities they share, albeit to different degrees of intensity, at least as viewed by this brother.
The book represents brother Jonathan as almost inhuman in his lack of emotions, yet indicates that he has a wife and children with whom he has functioning relationships. Julian and his wife have no children, but except in an anecdote in which he tells his mother that he and his wife are each making a course for a dinner party, his marriage and even his wife are left out of the book and of the Barnes family dynamic. (For instance, it would have been nice to have the benefit of his wife’s view of his parents or brother.) It’s not that the author is unwilling to be forthcoming about intimate personal details like whether he was breast-fed or his infantile excremental revels. Nor that he is shy about confessing his fears or beliefs. Yet all the time you feel he is holding back:
“If I called myself an atheist at twenty, an agnostic at fifty and sixty, it isn’t because I have acquired more knowledge in the meantime; just more awareness of ignorance. How can we be sure that we know enough to know?”
This avowal would no doubt meet with the approval of his fraternal not-quite-alter ego and is admirable in its modesty and discipline, but what is the point of writing a book like this if your own thoughts and the pastiche gathered from those 19th century French writers are in the end so stultifying?
Best stay in fiction
The answer seems simple: If fiction is your forte, then stick to it. Barnes’ most recent short story collection, “The Lemon Table,” was a remarkable tour de force where, in tale after tale, he illuminated with brilliance and unusual depth of insight the predicament of old people confronting the end of life. Having chosen then to talk about his elderly parents’ decline and demise, you might have expected such qualities to be on display here, but they are absent. Unwilling to open up as a confessional writer, he apparently needs fictional legerdemain to provide the spark:
“During my mother’s widowhood, I wrote a short story set in the recognizable ground plan of my parents’ bungalow (a ‘superior chalet’ in estate agents’ terminology, I later discovered). I also used the basic ground plan of my parents’ characters and modes of interaction. The elderly father (quiet, ironic) is having an affair with a doctor’s widow in a neighbouring village; when the mother (sharp-tongued, irritating) finds out, she responds -- or so we are invited to believe, though we may not be quite certain -- by assaulting him with heavy French saucepans. The action -- the suffering -- is seen from their son’s point of view. . . . I based the story on a septuagenarian degringolade I heard about elsewhere, which I then grafted on to my parents’ home life.”
This Barnes terms his “fictional gift.” And it is apparently necessary if he is to breathe life into characters:
“I imagine my brother’s mental life proceeding in a sequence of discrete and interconnected thoughts, whereas mine lollops from anecdote to anecdote. But then, he is a philosopher and I am a novelist, and even the most intricately structured novel must give the appearance of lolloping. Life lollops.”
Unfortunately for Barnes and the reader, in the sense in which “lollops” means merely lolling or lounging about, that is all this book manages to do.
Martin Rubin is a critic and the author of “Sarah Gertrude Millin: A South African Life.”