Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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Nothing To Be Frightened Of – Julian Barnes – A Review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on May 31, 2009

If “Space” is the final frontier then what should we make of “Death”? While our understanding of the former has increased quite dramatically in the recent past, the latter  remains stubbornly elusive – as it ever was since we have become conscious of it. It continues to evoke a primal sense of fear, fascination, resignation and acceptance unmatched by any other phenomenon known to mankind. Maybe it is for this reason that since the dawn of civilization and across cultures some of the greatest names among us have applied their minds to it, many continue to apply their minds and many more will continue to do the same, resulting in a fascinating body of  speculative knowledge. Nothing To Be Frightened Of – the latest book of Julian Barnes is his take on this subject

What starts as an autobiographical sketch covering two generations, quickly turns into a deep personal meditation on the fear of death and dying, god, religion, art and the role of free will. As one goes along Barnes introduces the reader to a rich tapestry of thoughts of some of greatest minds like Flaubert, Daudet, Renard, Montaigne, Maugham, Russell, Camus, Dawkins, Stravinsky and Koestler. The quality of his meditations are intensely personal, intellectually stimulating and carry with them a pugilistic vigour. Written with a sense of gentle humour and endearing irony, the book is an absolute pleasure from the word go. Consider this brilliant reflection: “Death can’t be talked down, or parlayed into anything; it simply declines to come to the negotiating table. It doesn’t have to pretend to be Vengeful or Merciful, or even Infinitely Merciless. It is impervious to insult, complaint of condescension. “Death is not an artist”: no, and would never claim to be one. Artists are unreliable ; whereas death never lets you down, remains on call seven days a week, and is happy to work three consecutive eight-hour shifts. You would buy shares in death, if they were available; you would bet on it, however poor the oddsor  “We may allow Death, like God, to be an occasional ironist, but shouldn’t nevertheless confuse them. The essential difference remains: God might be dead, but Death is well alive“. There are many pages in the book I turned to again and again for the sheer beauty and originality of Barnes‘s thoughts.

As one reads through the book one gets a sense of Barness’ own position which is a feeling of an overarching sympathy at the predicament of human beings and their consequent behaviour faced with death, an open hearted acceptance of its inevitability and an ineluctable touch of sadness and resignation

Nothing To Be Frightened Of without a doubt is a tour de force and places Barnes as one of the pre-eminent writers of our times. It is one of those rare books which is thought provoking, enjoyable, deeply satisfying and liberating – lending credence to the statement that literature is the truest form of assisted living

Don’t I have any quarrels with this book? I do and it is this: The brilliance of this book is one sided. In the sense that there is a rich body of thought in Eastern religions like Hindusim and Buddhism where the premises of  Life, Existence, Death and its dynamics have been treated in a soul stirring fashion. I hoped to see some of this reflected in the book and was disappointed that there is not even a whiff of it for consideration

As I turned the last page of the book, I was inevitably drawn to my favourite soliloquy on death from Macbeth

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing

Nothing To Be Frightened Of  has reinforced the spirit of the soliloquy in me shorn of its resignation and despair.


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