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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

Nothing to be Frightened of

Julian Barnes

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To purchase Nothing to be Frightened of

Title: Nothing to be Frightened of
Author: Julian Barnes
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2008
Length: 244 pages
Availability: Nothing to be Frightened of - US
Nothing to be Frightened of - UK
Nothing to be Frightened of - Canada
Rien à craindre - France
Nichts, was man fürchten müsste - Deutschland

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Our Assessment:

B : the writing is a pleasure to read, but more a collection of thoughts and quotes than a cohering examination of the subject matter

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Bookforum . 9-11/2008 Peter Terzian
The Guardian . 28/2/2009 Nicholas Lezard
The Independent . 7/3/2008 John Walsh
Independent on Sunday . 15/3/2009 Brandon Robshaw
Literary Review . 3/2008 Cressida Connolly
The LA Times . 29/9/2008 Martin Rubin
New Statesman . 6/3/2008 Lucy Beresford
The NY Sun . 10/9/2008 Michael Wood
The NY Times Book Rev. . 5/10/2008 Garrison Keillor
The Observer . 2/3/2008 Hilary Spurling
The Observer . 8/3/2009 Mary Fitzgerald
The Spectator . 23/3/2008 Simon Baker
Sunday Times . 2/3/2008 John Carey
The Telegraph . 5/3/2008 Lynn Barber
The Telegraph . 5/3/2008 Harry Mount
The Times . 7/3/2008 Jane Shilling
TLS . 28/3/2009 Brian Dillon

  Review Consensus:

  Most (though not all) find it fairly appealing, if rather an odd, loose collection of thoughts and pieces

  From the Reviews:
  • "It’s best not to struggle too much while reading Nothing to Be Frightened Of, Julian Barnes’s chew on death, religion, family, writing, and memory, among other things. Ideas, arguments, quotations, and anecdotes pursue one another across the pages, dogleg, vanish, and resurface. Signposts and footholds are scarce, and there are no chapter breaks or headings. No matter: Barnes is the most companionable of tour guides" - Peter Terzian, Bookforum

  • "After a while -- a very short while, in fact -- it becomes clear that this is also a kind of engagingly hazy autobiography (.....) But this is, on the whole, a philosophical work -- the business of philosophy, as Montaigne and others have reminded us, being to teach us how to die. Hence the importance of his brother. But it is also a meditation on writing, on literary posterity, on the characters and equipment of writers" - Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

  • "The core of the book is an aesthetic, rather than a religious, elegy. Barnes surrounds it with a rich array of questionings from the cusp of life and death. (...) Sometimes the book threatens to turn into an anthology of death-writings (.....) The best pages, however, are those in which he evokes his parents." - John Walsh, The Independent

  • "This is a thoughtful and elegantly written memoir, as one would expect from Julian Barnes (.....) The insistent reference to the fact that Barnes himself is a writer is overdone, though. He mentions that he's a novelist on just about every other page; but then, perhaps leaving books behind feels like a little retaliatory knock at death." - Brandon Robshaw, Independent on Sunday

  • "That is what makes this book so enjoyable: there's plenty to argue with. Julian Barnes is a delightful companion and much of the book (its informal tone included) is like an extended and very interesting conversation. (...) When he writes about his parents he is at his best, a master of the telling detail. " - Cressida Connolly, Literary Review

  • "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." - Martin Rubin, The Los Angeles Times

  • "I am delighted (and, you can imagine, not a little relieved) to report that at times this book is both fun and funny. It is sharp, too, in the sense of painful as well as witty. But that is bearable, because when that someone is the novelist and essayist Julian Barnes, you can relax immediately into his lucid prose, safe in the knowledge that you are in the presence of a nimble mind in compete mastery of, and engagement with, its chosen subject." - Lucy Beresford, New Statesman

  • "The book is rather meandering and very English (.....) At any rate the pleasures of Nothing To Be Frightened are in the writing rather than the thoughts" - Michael Wood, The New York Sun

  • "All true so far as it goes, perhaps, but so what? Barnes is a novelist and what gives this book life and keeps the reader happily churning forward is his affection for the people who wander in and out (.....) It is a beautiful and funny book, still booming in my head." - Garrison Keillor, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Barnes's clinical approach tends to reduce other people -- the genetic material that made him -- to extensions of himself, figments not much more substantial than the waterlogged scraps of torn-up correspondence leaking through the gaping seams of his parents' disintegrating pouf. Inanimate objects are more tenderly treated." - Hilary Spurling, The Observer

  • "The overall effect is that of an edifying conversation with an interesting, knowledgeable but refreshingly unpretentious thinker." - Mary Fitzgerald, The Observer

  • "Although death is the destination here, however, Barnes takes a meandering route towards it. (...) It is in its occasional over-reliance on quotations that this book is weakest. While the quotations themselves are rarely dull, their sheer volume makes this seem, in places, like a ‘best of death’ compilation rather than the original work that, for the most part, it is. The more enjoyable passages, in contrast, are those in which Barnes sets out his own far-ranging, and often highly insightful, thoughts on death." - Simon Baker, The Spectator

  • "Ironically, the most mind-expanding idea in his book comes not from the arts but from science." - John Carey, Sunday Times

  • "(A)n elegant, ludic, urbane meditation on death, which manages to dance nimbly round its subject without ever engaging it in mortal combat" - Lynn Barber, The Telegraph

  • "This book reads just like a collection of commonplaces; a ragbag of thoughts, mostly filed under D for death -- death is the Nothing in the Nothing to be Frightened Of." - Harry Mount, The Telegraph

  • "This is not, in short, a book about family'n'God'n'art'n'books'n'Jules's very clever and rather crushing bro, the quaintly dressed, llama-owning, France-dwelling philosopher. It is a meditation on death, in the contemplation of which all the above, and a good deal else beside, are intimately involved. (...) This is, sure enough, an extremely bookish account of mortality: intricate and elegantly structured beneath its anecdotal surface (...). It may also strike female readers as a peculiarly male account of timor mortis." - Jane Shilling, The Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In Nothing to be Frightened of Julian Barnes faces his fear of death, wondering whether it is ... nothing to be frightened of, or a very big nothing that one should, indeed, be terrified of. He's long been worried about the matter, and in Nothing to be Frightened of he collects his (and many others') thoughts on the matter. He reflects a great deal on family and the death of his parents, and uses his older philosopher-brother -- described as being a completely different type than him -- as a foil and measure for his own attitudes.
       Much of the book also focuses on religion and its usefulness in making the thought of death bearable, especially by offering an ever-after (rather defeating the ... purpose of death) -- a convenient crutch that Barnes wishes he had but can't bring himself to embrace. He begins the book by noting that: "I don't believe in God, but I miss him", and he does go on at quite some length about the benefits (and problems) of religious belief vis-à-vis how to handle death.
       Barnes is also quite fascinated by technological and medical advances, and how they've changed dying: chances are one will breathe one's last in a hospital nowadays, rather than at home; that we can (and often are) kept alive rather artificially and well beyond our sensible expire-by-date (in part also because doctors -- apparently more death-fearing than the average person to begin with -- see patients' deaths as personal (and, obviously, professional) failures and thus try to keep those bodies 'alive' as long as possible); that the time of well-turned dying utterances is pretty much over. Barnes also offers amusing anecdotes of how the best laid plans, expectations, and hopes of how exactly one will die tend to go way astray -- and notes that this is one thing that has not changed, as he nicely puts it in a typically cleverly turned passage:

Maugham is right: we die as dogs die. Or rather -- given medicine's advances since 1902 -- we die as well-groomed, well-tranquillized dogs with good health insurance policies might die. But still caninely.
       Barnes relies a great deal on personal history and experience, but also falls back on the lives and work of other writers, with an emphasis on late-nineteenth century French authors, most notably the pithy Jules Renard, whom he quotes extensively. It's entertaining but perhaps ultimately a layer too much to all Barnes' digressiveness: he weaves his material together very well -- it's always a pleasure to read -- and doesn't so much lose sight of his subject (death is omnipresent) but of his purpose: there's an awful lot of treading water.
       Barnes is aware of his tendencies, and throughout the book he contrasts his ways and his personality with those of his brother, the very philosophical philosopher (specializing in Aristotle and the pre-Socratics). As he sums up:
     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 the philosopher and I am a novelist, and even the most intricately structured novel must give the appearance of lolloping. Life lollops.
       One can hardly criticize lolloping -- or, indeed, any writer who uses the term -- but this does beg the question: why is Barnes wasting his and our time with these subjective but still non-fictional musings when he could be writing a novel ? Barnes does warn that: "these anecdotes of mine should be treated with suspicion", and his use of secondary material here does resemble that in some of his novels (Flaubert's Parrot, most notably), but the fact that so much of this is an autobiographical account makes it difficult -- in this autobiography-saturated time -- to see it as pure fiction. But adulterated non-fiction of this sort -- fun though every line of it is to read -- isn't Barnes' greatest strength, the sum of it not nearly as effective as a more direct exposition of the material -- or a work of fiction -- could be.
       In Nothing to be Frightened of Barnes does reflect extensively on his family -- at least his parents and his brother (wife "P." barely rates a mention, and Pat Kavanagh's sudden and unexpected demise only a few months after publication of the book makes one wonder what it would have amounted to had Barnes still been in the midst of writing it when she passed away). The parent-portraits are quite fascinating, but it is the sibling rivalry and contrast that he uses most extensively in illustrating the differing attitudes and approaches one can have to death (and life). Particularly amusing, then, is when Barnes relatively late on asks: "Do you have a clear enough picture of my brother ? Do you need more basic facts ?" and then proceeds to offer several more -- closing with one devastating one that colors whatever one might have thought of the rational mind previously. ("Perhaps I should have mentioned this before", Barnes' impishly adds -- the novelist knowing exactly how to time his revelations, and knowing when to land the full body-blow.)
       Nothing to be Frightened of is surprisingly pleasant reading: Barnes deals even with death and all its ugliness gently, and he writes and tells his anecdotes exceptionally well. He covers a good deal of ground -- including offering much theological speculation -- and adds some nice personal touches. Yet the book is curiously unsatisfying. Certainly one can't expect any real answers in a book that deals with this greatest of unknowns (and Barnes has a lot of fun with the unknowability-factor of death), but it comes to feel more like an assemblage of anecdotes and quotes than anything else; a few unnecessary repetitions also don't help (though elsewhere Barnes does use the repetition of anecdote-bits or quotes effectively).
       A fine piece of writing, and offering considerable insight into the author, but little more than a starting point as a consideration of death.

- M.A.Orthofer, 2 October 2009

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Nothing to be Frightened of: Reviews: Julian Barnes: Other books by Julian Barnes under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       English author Julian Barnes was born in 1946. He is the author of several highly acclaimed novels.

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