Friday, June 05, 2009

Nothing to Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes

Both of my parents are dead. My sister recently made good on a longstanding threat to send me some of their personal possessions, in three boxes of diminishing size, like children's stacking blocks. The boxes included a brass tea set (allegedly from Russia), a ceramic ink pot (also from Russia), some carved wooden boxes (Indonesian? - empty, but which used to hold family photos), a few odd pieces of crystal and ceramics, the smelly trunk which I always assumed my father had while in the Navy, but which, in fact, my grandfather brought over from Ireland, some photos (mostly of me at various stages of youthful development), and some assorted odds and ends: a little leprechaun statuette that my youngest son thinks looks as though it's pooping on a shamrock, some newspapers of the JFK assassination, and no less than three Bibles(!) and two Bible storybooks from the 1920s, now sadly fallen into heathen hands. The detritus of a few lives lived in the last century and a half, mostly of no monetary value, and hardly any (to me) sentimental value. Stuff that gets pass down a couple of generations, and then (all familiar associations spent) deservedly disappears without a trace.

This is the sort of thing Julian Barnes meditates upon in this book, a personal examination of family, memory, and mortality. Barnes is afraid to die. That is, he is afraid of being dead, and seems to fret about this incessantly. (The canard is that people are either afraid of dying, or of being dead. I suppose, as the prospect of total extinction has always held a certain appeal to me, I fall within the former category. But as long as there's not a lot of blood or exposed organs, I'm ok with it.)

Early on, Barnes makes generous use of insights by the likes of Jules Renard and the brothers Goncourt , Stendhal, and Shostakovich. Rachmaninoff makes a humorous appearance as a man so terrified of death that he ran shrieking from the first graveyard scene in "Frankenstein", but later became convinced, temporarily at least, that salted pistachios calmed his death fear. Stendhal is used as an exemplar of the faultiness of memory, as his diary entries of an early trip to Florence are compared to later recollections. There is a smattering of philosophical speculation and medical information, but little space devoted to religion, a perspective on death that Barnes, an atheist/agnostic, sees as little more than whistling in the dark. (Not that I disagree.)

Nothing to Be Frightened Of sustains interest for most of the first half of the book (thanks to Renard & Co.), but gets rather bogged down in the middle with somewhat unfocused meanderings and blathering frets and fears at the prospect of his eventual sloughing of this mortal coil (the title of the book, if you haven’t figured it out, has a double meaning). By the end, with a meditation on Stendhal, Barnes manages to pull it together again. If I were into ratings, I'd give this a middling one.