Intimations of mortality

<strong>Nothing to Be Frightened Of </strong>

Julian Barnes <em>Jonathan Cape, 250pp, £16.99 </em

The last word I expected to use to describe this book, a meditation on death, was "fun". Or even "funny". The prospect of closeting myself away for a week reading someone's solipsistic preoccupation with their loss of faith and attendant death anxiety was simply, utterly deadly. But 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.

JB, as I began to refer to him in my notes (not least because his easy, conversational style makes you feel immediately at home in his company, inviting you to be as intimate with him as he is being with you), sets out his stall early. In the opening line, in fact: "I do not believe in God, but I miss Him." And one of the reasons he misses Him is an acute and lifelong fixation on death. In true existential fashion, he believes that death is the "one appalling fact which defines life" - which begs him to speculate that if he had more of a faith, his death anxiety might, perhaps, die off. Might he conquer his fear of death as successfully as he was able earlier to conquer a fear of flying?

To help him puzzle out this conundrum, Barnes turns to an array of writers, philosophers and artists who have grappled with such issues. Sigmund Freud, Albert Camus, pessimistic Dmitri Shostakovich, fearful Philip Larkin, remorseful Edmund Wilson, Montaigne quoting Cicero referencing Socrates, and Stravinsky recalling how Nikolai Gogol, Serge Diaghilev and Maurice Ravel each died - all these and more keep Barnes company in his death-brooding. And though reluctant to describe this work as an autobiography, he also looks for answers in his own history: in the lives, beliefs and memories of his parents, his grandparents, his nieces and his brother, a philosopher in France with whom Barnes argues the toss about fear, dying and the unreliability of memory with the same fixed and personality-pertinent positions as when, as children, they divvied up which stamp categories to collect.

I quizzed some of my religious friends about many of the ideas in this book, such as whether they believed that those with faith experience more wonder at nature and the universe than those without. (They thought not.) Because that's the kind of vigorous book this is: it compels you to ask questions, to debate, to buttonhole strangers on the Tube and ask: is it me, or do you disagree with this bit? It's very interactive in that way - a living book about death.

Barnes's own questions come thick and fast: Does a lack of faith inhibit one's ability to appreciate religious art? What constitutes a good death? Does an awareness of our cosmic insignificance make it easier to face death? And is the fact that agnostics and atheists can match religious types for honesty and integrity a triumph - and, if so, for which group? I am confident that your copy of this book will be covered in scribbles, question marks, the odd underscoring of rejection, and many triumphant exclamation marks of agreement.

Despite the morbid subject matter, Barnes's enviable comic timing is very much present in the book. The narrative is sprinkled with phrases which, repeated throughout the text, act as in-jokes, such as our tendency to comfort ourselves by doing what the recently departed "would have wanted". In other lines the humour is simply dark: a friend of Bruce Chatwin first guessed the writer was dying when he untypically paid for lunch. The wit liberally punctuating the prose is justified - the certainty of death at the end of life suggests a pointlessness of human existence that would be almost laughable if it weren't so tragic.

Barnes dissects with tremendous verve and insight this awesome inevitability of death and its impact on the human psyche. He also tears at your heart: the brief hospital scene of Albert trying to coax his beautiful Dulcie out of a coma is eye-smartingly poignant and worth (for cathartic moments that live beyond one's reading of the book) the price of admission alone. Just as we eventually must confront our own mortality, we must acknowledge that Barnes will not flinch from the bleakness of his material. And so, although there is something invigorating about his scholarly yet jaunty meditation, overall the mood of this memento mori is of spirited stoicism tempering the dread - a reminder that, within this successful, sophisticated, erudite writer in his sixties, there still lives an anxious little boy.

Lucy Beresford's first novel, "Something I'm Not", has just been published by Duckworth at £12.99

This article first appeared in the 10 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How Hillary did it