Nothing To Be Frightened Of by Julian BarnesNothing To Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes

Nothing To Be Frightened Of

byJulian Barnes

Paperback | April 21, 2009

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"I don’t believe in God, but I miss him." So begins Julian Barnes’s brilliant new book that is, among many things, a family memoir, an exchange with his brother (a philosopher), a meditation on mortality and the fear of death, a celebration of art, an argument with and about God, and a homage to the writer Jules Renard. Barnes also draws poignant portraits of the last days of his parents, recalled with great detail, affection and exasperation. Other examples he takes up include writers, "most of them dead and quite a few of them French," as well as some composers, for good measure.

The grace with which Barnes weaves together all of these threads makes the experience of reading the book nothing less than exhilarating. Although he cautions us that "this is not my autobiography," the book nonetheless reveals much about Barnes the man and the novelist: how he thinks and how he writes and how he lives. At once deadly serious and dazzlingly playful, Nothing to Be Frightened Of is a wise, funny and constantly surprising tour of the human condition.

From the Hardcover edition.
JULIAN BARNES is the author of over twenty books, for which he received the Man Booker Prize, the Somerset Maugham Award, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, the David Cohen Prize for Literature and the E. M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; in France, the Prix Médicis and the Prix Femina, and in 2004 he was ...
Title:Nothing To Be Frightened OfFormat:PaperbackDimensions:256 pages, 8 × 5.1 × 0.69 inPublished:April 21, 2009Publisher:Random House of CanadaLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:030735699X

ISBN - 13:9780307356994

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Read from the Book

I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him. That’s what I say when the question is put. I asked my brother, who has taught philosophy at Oxford, Geneva and the Sorbonne, what he thought of such a statement, without revealing that it was my own. He replied with a single word: ‘Soppy.’The person to begin with is my maternal grandmother, Nellie Louisa Scoltock, née Machin. She was a teacher in Shropshire until she married my grandfather, Bert Scoltock. Not Bertram, not Albert, just Bert: so christened, so called, so cremated. He was a headmaster with a certain mechanical dash to him: a motorcycle-and-sidecar man, then owner of a Lanchester, then, in retirement, driver of a rather pompously sporty Triumph Roadster, with a three-person bench seat in front, and two bucket seats when the top was down. By the time I knew them, my grandparents had come south to be near their only child. Grandma went to the Women’s Institute; she pickled and bottled; she plucked and roasted the chickens and geese that Grandpa raised. She was petite, outwardly unopinionated, and had the thickened knuckles of old age; she needed soap to get her wedding ring off. Their wardrobe was full of home-knitted cardigans, Grandpa’s tending to feature more masculine cable stitch. They had regular appointments with the chiropodist, and were of that generation advised by dentists to have all their teeth out in one go. This was a normal rite of passage then: from being rickety-gnashered to fully porcelained in one leap, to all that buccal sliding and clacking, to social embarrassment and the foaming glass on the bedside table.The change from teeth to dentures struck my brother and me as both grave and ribald. But my grandmother’s life had contained another enormous change, never alluded to in her presence. Nellie Louisa Machin, daughter of a labourer in a chemical works, had been brought up a Methodist; while the Scoltocks were Church of England. At some point in her young adulthood, my grandmother had suddenly lost her faith and, in the smooth narration of family lore, found a replacement: socialism. I have no idea how strong her religious faith had been, or what her family’s politics were; all I know is that she once stood for the local council as a socialist and was defeated. By the time I knew her, in the 1950s, she had progressed to being a communist. She must have been one of the few old-age pensioners in suburban Buckinghamshire who took the Daily Worker and — so my brother and I insisted to one another — fiddled the housekeeping to send donations to the newspaper’s Fighting Fund.In the late 1950s, the Sino-Soviet Schism took place, and communists worldwide were obliged to choose between Moscow and Peking. For most of the European faithful, this was not a difficult decision; nor was it for the Daily Worker, which received funding as well as directives from Moscow. My grandmother, who had never been abroad in her life, who lived in genteel bungalowdom, decided for undisclosed reasons to throw in her lot with the Chinese. I welcomed this mysterious decision with blunt self-interest, since her Worker was now supplemented by China Reconstructs, a heretical magazine posted direct from the distant continent. Grandma would save me the stamps from the biscuity envelopes. These tended to celebrate industrial achievement — bridges, hydroelectric dams, lorries rolling off production lines — or else show various breeds of dove in peaceful flight.My brother did not compete for such offerings, because some years previously there had been a Stamp-Collecting Schism in our home. He had decided to specialize in the British Empire. I, to assert my difference, announced that I would therefore specialize in a category which I named, with what seemed like logic to me, Rest of the World. It was defined solely in terms of what my brother didn’t collect. I can no longer remember if this move was aggressive, defensive, or merely pragmatic. All I know is that it led to some occasionally baffling exchanges in the school stamp club among philatelists only recently out of short trousers. ‘So, Barnesy, what do you collect?’ ‘Rest of the World.’My grandfather was a Brylcreem man, and the antimacassar on his Parker Knoll armchair — a high-backed number with wings for him to snooze against — was not merely decorative. His hair had whitened sooner than Grandma’s; he had a clipped, military moustache, a metal-stemmed pipe and a tobacco pouch which distended his cardigan pocket. He also wore a chunky hearing aid, another aspect of the adult world — or rather, the world on the farther side of adulthood — which my brother and I liked to mock. ‘Beg pardon?’ we would shout satirically at one another, cupping hands to ears. Both of us used to look forward to the prized moment when our grandmother’s stomach would rumble loudly enough for Grandpa to be roused from his deafness into the enquiry, ‘Telephone, Ma?’ An embarrassed grunt later, they would go back to their newspapers. Grandpa, in his male armchair, deaf aid occasionally whistling and pipe making a hubble-bubble noise as he sucked on it, would shake his head over the Daily Express, which described to him a world where truth and justice were constantly imperilled by the Communist Threat. In her softer, female armchair — in the red corner — Grandma would tut-tut away over the Daily Worker, which described to her a world where truth and justice, in their updated versions, were constantly imperilled by Capitalism and Imperialism.Grandpa, by this time, had reduced his religious observance to watching Songs of Praise on television. He did woodwork and gardened; he grew his own tobacco and dried it in the garage loft, where he also stored dahlia tubers and old copies of the Daily Express bound with hairy string. He favoured my brother, taught him how to sharpen a chisel, and left him his chest of carpentry tools. I can’t remember him teaching (or leaving) me anything, though I was once allowed to watch while he killed a chicken in his garden shed. He took the bird under his arm, stroked it into calmness, then laid its neck on a green metal wringing machine screwed to the door jamb. As he brought the handle down, he gripped the bird’s body ever more tightly against its final convulsions.My brother was allowed not just to watch, but also participate. Several times he got to pull the lever while Grandpa held the bird. But our memories of the slaughter in the shed diverge into incompatibility. For me, the machine merely wrung the chicken’s neck; for him, it was a junior guillotine. ‘I have a clear picture of a small basket underneath the blade. I have a (less clear) picture of the head dropping, some (not much) blood, Grandpa putting the headless bird on the ground, its running around for a few moments . . .’ Is my memory sanitized, or his infected by films about the French Revolution? In either case, Grandpa introduced my brother to death — and its messiness — better than he did me. ‘Do you remember how Grandpa killed the geese before Christmas?’ (I do not.) ‘He used to chase the destined goose round its pen, flailing at it with a crowbar. When he finally got it, he would, for good measure, lay it on the ground, put the crowbar across its neck, and tug on its head.’My brother remembers a ritual — never witnessed by me — which he called the Reading of the Diaries. Grandma and Grandpa each kept separate diaries, and of an evening would sometimes entertain themselves by reading out loud to one another what they had recorded on that very week several years previously. The entries were apparently of considerable banality but frequent disagreement. Grandpa: ‘Friday. Worked in garden. Planted potatoes.’ Grandma: ‘Nonsense. “Rained all day. Too wet to work in garden.”’My brother also remembers that once, when he was very small, he went into Grandpa’s garden and pulled up all the onions. Grandpa beat him until he howled, then turned uncharacteristically white, confessed everything to our mother, and swore he would never again raise his hand to a child. Actually, my brother doesn’t remember any of this — neither the onions, nor the beating. He was just told the story repeatedly by our mother. And indeed, were he to remember it, he might well be wary. As a philosopher, he believes that memories are often false, ‘so much so that, on the Cartesian principle of the rotten apple, none is to be trusted unless it has some external support’. I am more trusting, or self-deluding, so shall continue as if all my memories are true.Our mother was christened Kathleen Mabel. She hated the Mabel, and complained about it to Grandpa, whose explanation was that he ‘had once known a very nice girl called Mabel’. I have no idea about the progress or regress of her religious beliefs, though I own her prayer book, bound together with Hymns Ancient and Modern in soft brown suede, each volume signed in surprising green ink with her name and the date: ‘Dec: 25th . 1932.’ I admire her punctuation: two full stops and a colon, with the stop beneath the ‘th’ placed exactly between the two letters. You don’t get punctuation like that nowadays.In my childhood, the three unmentionable subjects were the traditional ones: religion, politics and sex. By the time my mother and I came to discuss these matters — the first two, that is, the third being permanently off the agenda — she was ‘true blue’ in politics, as I would guess she always had been. As for religion, she told me firmly that she didn’t want ‘any of that mumbo-jumbo’ at her funeral. So when the undertaker asked if I wanted the ‘religious symbols’ removed from the crematorium wall, I told him I thought that this is what she would have wanted.The past conditional, by the way, is a tense of which my brother is highly suspicious. Waiting for the funeral to start, we had, not an argument — this would have been against all family tradition — but an exchange which demonstrated that if I am a rationalist by my own standards, I am a fairly feeble one by his. When our mother was first incapacitated by a stroke, she happily agreed that her granddaughter C. should have the use of her car: the last of a long sequence of Renaults, the marque to which she had maintained a francophiliac loyalty over four decades. Standing with my brother in the crematorium car park, I was looking out for the familiar French silhouette when my niece arrived at the wheel of her boyfriend R.’s car. I observed — mildly, I am sure — ‘I think Ma would have wanted C. to come in her car.’ My brother, just as mildly, took logical exception to this. He pointed out that there are the wants of the dead, i.e. things which people now dead once wanted; and there are hypothetical wants, i.e. things which people would or might have wanted. ‘What Mother would have wanted’ was a combination of the two: a hypothetical want of the dead, and therefore doubly questionable. ‘We can only do what we want,’ he explained; to indulge the maternal hypothetical was as irrational as if he were now to pay attention to his own past desires. I proposed in reply that we should try to do what she would have wanted, a) because we have to do something, and that something (unless we simply left her body to rot in the back garden) involves choices; and b) because we hope that when we die, others will do what we in our turn would have wanted.I see my brother infrequently, and so am often startled by the way in which his mind works; but he is quite genuine in what he says. As I drove him back to London after the funeral, we had a — to me — even more peculiar exchange about my niece and her boyfriend. They had been together a long time, though during a period of estrangement C. had taken up with another man. My brother and his wife had instantly disliked this interloper, and my sister-in-law had apparently taken a mere ten minutes to ‘sort him out’. I didn’t ask the manner of the sorting out. Instead, I asked, ‘But you approve of R.?’‘It’s irrelevant,’ my brother replied, ‘whether or not I approve of R.’‘No, it’s not. C. might want you to approve of him.’‘On the contrary, she might want me not to approve of him.’‘But either way, it’s not irrelevant to her whether or not you approve or disapprove.’He thought this over for a moment. ‘You’re right,’ he said.You can perhaps tell from these exchanges that he is the elder brother.From the Hardcover edition.

Bookclub Guide

1. Nothing to Be Frightened Of opens with an arresting sentence: "I don't believe in God, but I miss Him" [p. 3]. How is it possible to both miss God and not believe in him? Is Julian Barnes's brother, Jonathan, right in regarding such a sentiment as "soppy"?2. How does Barnes manage to make a 244-page book about death and the fear of death such an enjoyable read? What is appealing about his voice throughout the book? What are some of the more humorous moments in Nothing to Be Frightened Of?3. Barnes writes that: "For me, death is the one appalling fact which defines life" [p. 124]. Why does he feel this way? In what ways does death "define life"? Why would life become intolerable without the prospect of death?4. In what ways are Barnes's fears of death representative of those who have lost faith, or who have never had faith, in the various versions of the afterlife that the major religions have proposed? In what ways are Barnes's fears unique to him?5. "We encourage one another," Barnes writes, "towards the secular modern heaven of self-fulfillment: the development of the personality, the relationships which help define us, the status-giving job, the material goods, the ownership of property, the foreign holidays, the acquisition of savings, the accumulation of sexual exploits, the visits to the gym, the consumption of culture. It all adds up to happiness, doesn't it - doesn't it? This is our chosen myth" [p. 59]. Why does the secular myth of self-fulfillment fail to ease the fear of death?6. What examples does Barnes give of people who have died "in character"? Why does he admire this ability to stay true to one's nature in the face of death?7. Barnes examines what such writers and composers as Jules Renard, Alphonse Daudet, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Somerset Maugham, Stendhal, A. J. Ayer, Montaigne, Sherwin Nuland, Philip Larkin, and others have written about death. Is he able to draw any comfort from their words?  On what grounds does he reject most of these arguments? Which of their arguments about how to best approach death does he find most helpful?8. Barnes observes that when writers "venture out into the world, they regularly behave as if they have left all their comprehension of human behaviour stuck in their typescripts" [p. 126]. Why is it that writers demonstrate so much understanding of human behavior in their writing and so little in their lives?9. In what ways is Nothing to Be Frightened Of a book about the art of fiction as well as a book about death? What connections does Barnes make between narrative art and death? Between novelists and religions?10. Throughout the book, Barnes poses a series of either/or questions to the reader:  Would you rather die suddenly, without warning, or slowly, so that you could tie up loose ends, say farewell, etc.? Would you rather choose the moment of your dying, or leave it to fate? Would you rather live with the knowledge of death always before you, as Montaigne suggests, or live as if you were immortal? Discuss these questions with your group. What other either/or questions might one pose about death and dying?11. After considering Rossini's Petite Messe Solennelle, Barnes writes, "The artist is saying: display and bravura are tricks for the young, and yes, showing off is part of ambition; but now that we are old, let us have the confidence to speak simply. . . .  This is not just humility in the face of eternity; it is also that it takes a lifetime to see, and say, simple things" [p. 194]. Why would it take a lifetime to learn to see and say simple things? In what ways has Barnes himself, despite his obvious erudition, mastered the art of speaking simply? What are some of the pleasures of Barnes's prose style?12. Barnes quotes Shostakovich who said that the fear of death is probably the deepest feeling we have and that "the irony lies in the fact that under the influence of that fear people create poetry, prose and music; that is, they try to strengthen their ties with the living and increase their influence on them" [p. 200]. Why would the fear of death inspire people to create works of art? How does Barnes respond to Shostakovich's remark?13. How does Barnes regard his parents' deaths? What effect do they have on his own fear of death?14. Barnes asserts that "the ingenious human animal is well capable of constructing civilizations where religion coexists with frenetic materialism (where the former might even be an emetic consequence of the latter): witness America" [p. 60]. Is Barnes right in suggesting that religion in America is a nauseating consequence of our insatiable materialism? What evidence can be found to support such a view?15. What does the inclusion of the views of Barnes's philosopher brother add to the texture of the book? How does Jonathan Barnes's sensibility differ from Julian's?16. After 244 pages of musing on death does Barnes seems any less anxious about it? Has his thinking about or fear of death changed over the course of the book?

Editorial Reviews

NATIONAL BESTSELLER FINALIST FOR THE PEN/ACKERLEY PRIZE A Globe and Mail Best Book  A New York Times Notable Book“This brilliant meditation on death, a family memoir, and an argument with God (whom the author doesn’t believe in, but misses) lays Barnes bare like no other previous work.” Zsuzsi Gartner, The Globe and Mail   “Because his style has always been exceedingly irreverent and anything but lugubrious, he makes this horrible of all horrible subjects a light, amusing diversion almost.... Whether you believe spending a little regular time getting used to the idea that one day there will be no eyeballs in that skull of yours or you wish to avoid the unpleasant truth for now, picking up Barnes’s death ramblings might be as good a way to spend some of the time you have left as any.” Edmonton Journal   “A double-jointed performance in which Barnes lets his sharp, obsessive mind wander in search of some kind of meaning. . . . If he doesn’t come up with any answers here, he asks a lot of provocative and fascinating questions. Call him Mr. Meaningful.” Ottawa Citizen “Barnes is neither depressed, nor depressing. He is honest and fantastically unconventional in discussing what is a matter of curiosity and concern to everyone who expects one day to die.... Death is inescapable and, in some manner to be revealed only at a later date, is approaching. If Barnes doesn’t make the prospect more palatable, he certainly makes it more stimulating.” The Gazette