Nothing to Be Frightened Of
by Julian Barnes
Reviewed by Ted Gioia
God is doing pretty well these days, at least judging by
the bestseller list. God figures prominently in non-fiction
books claiming that He is fiction (e.g., The God Delusion),
but also in fictional books that assert He is non-fiction
(e.g., the sixteen novels in the Left Behind series). There
are even several God-oriented cookbooks available for
Honestly, I don’t see the point in reading most of these
works. Usually the title tells you everything you will find
inside. Once you see the dust jacket proclaiming God is
Not Great or God’s Guide to Dating, do you really have any
doubts about what these pages hold in store? To my
mind, most books on God seem to be preaching to the
choir, whether they are written by believers or atheists.
Then celebrated novelist Julian Barnes (author of Flaubert's Parrot, A
History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, and Arthur & George) comes
along and delivers a different take on the deity. Barnes opens his
book Nothing to Be Frightened Of with this interesting admission: “I don’
t believe in God, but I miss Him.” In a polarized world, Barnes is that
rare author willing to explore the nebulous area between blind faith
and defiant materialism. Hollywood probably won’t be rushing to snap
up movie rights here. But readers may find solace—or at least enjoy a
diversion from their own thanatological musings—in this frank and
erudite look at secular nostalgia for a prime mover.
Here is an author who is willing to consider all of the options. Barnes
doesn’t just debate whether God exists, but also suggests many
other scenarios. These include: (1) God used to exist, but doesn’t
anymore; (2) God does exist, but has abandoned us; (3) God did
exists and will exist again, but doesn’t exist at the moment; (4) There
is no God, but there is eternal life; (5) God could grant us eternal life if
he wanted to, but won’t because we aren’t really worthy of it. . . And
As it turns out, eternal life is the real issue at stake in Barnes’s soul-
searching. This book about God is really about death. The author even
admits that his original opening line for this work was supposed to be:
“Let's get this death thing straight.”
But can you really get death straight? Certainly Mr. Barnes gives it his
best shot. He has clearly spent a lot of time thinking about the Grim
Reaper. Poor chap, he should have taken up golf, or kept up with his
stamp collecting. Instead he has been visiting graveyards, writing
down tombstone inscriptions, taking stock of last words and wills, and
collecting accounts of deathbed scenes.
What a guy! I will bet dollars to donuts that he also has the spookiest
house on the block when Halloween comes around. “Trick or treat, my
dear little ones. . . or perhaps you would prefer to know what Arthur
Koestler wrote in his suicide note?”
To Barnes’s credit, he gets a lot of mileage out of this gloomy subject.
He writes with his usual sparkling prose and always knows how to
find a clever angle or toss out a witty comment. But though he scores
some zingers at Death’s expense, he never really gets the upper
hand. Who could? “Death is not an artist,” as Barnes himself is quick
to remind us—rather "a cheerless commissar reliably fulfilling a quota
of 100 per cent."
Along the way, Barnes provides readers with a mini-autobiography. In
the course of his musings about God and death, he finds excuses for
recounting his family history during the last half century, and many
intriguing incidents from various stages of his life. An amusing
recurring theme pits our author against his big brother Jonathan
Barnes, a well-known Aristotelian and former Oxford professor. The
elder Barnes offers an occasional philosophical perspective on the
theological matters at hand, but even more interesting are the various
other issues on which these two brilliant brothers go back and forth.
They argue over their parents, their childhood memories, and their
respective bequests from grandpa, among other matters.
In a book that turns every stone looking for some soothing wisdom in
the face of eternal oblivion, there is not much to show for it at the
end. Yet if Nothing to Be Frightened Of falls short as theology, it works
brilliantly as narrative. Put simply, Barnes is much better at telling
anecdotes and finding the right metaphor than at offering consolation
in the face of the great unknown.
Nonethless Julian Barnes has an advantage that most mortals lack.
Well-known writers are able to transcend death because their works
live on—at least that’s what we are told. Barnes himself takes some
comfort in this fact, until he realizes that eventually there will come a
time when his books have their last reader. As he mulls this over, he
considers thanking this final fan. “But then, logic kicked in,” he writes.
“Your last reader is, by definition, someone who doesn’t recommend
your books to anyone else. You bastard! Not good enough, eh?” And
then he proceeds to shout some obscenities at this unsuspecting
So don’t be Mr. Barnes’s last reader. But in the meantime, there is no
harm in enjoying this odd little book. Okay, don’t expect final answers
about God and death in these pages, but there are plenty of other
authors out there who will share with you their grand
pronouncements. Julian Barnes may lack their professed certainties,
yet that very fact has allowed him to write a fresh book on what may
be the oldest topic of them all.
This article was initially published on Blogcritics.