by Julian Barnes
Random House Canada (2008), 250 pp.
It is early yet, but Julian Barnes’s Nothing to Be Frightened Of might just be the best book I’ve read this year. Not once or twice but three times, it pulled me from watching the Toronto Raptors, a pastime that neither children nor duty has kept me from for years.
The memoir is not my favourite genre, but then again Barnes seems a reluctant memoirist. “If this were a novel,” he writes, “I would have discovered some family secret — but no one will know the child isn’t yours, or they will never find the knife now, or I always wanted J. to be a girl — and my life would have been changed for ever.” Short pages later, he addresses the reader directly: ” Perhaps I should warn you (especially if you are a philosopher, theologian or biologist) that some of this book will strike you as amateur, do-it-yourself stuff . . . I should also warn you that there are going to be a lot of writers in this book. Most of them dead, and quite a few of them French.”
Part meditation on death and dying (and elegy to his parents), part debate with his rationalist brother, part travelogue into the mysteries of memory, and always elegantly written, Nothing dives into deep interiors, and then, because Barnes is an aesthete and a lover of the leavening agents of everyday life, we are given comedic blasts of irreverence and purposeful agnosticism. The “warnings” cited above come long after philosophers, anti-French chauvinists, and others have, I’m sure, already begun delighting in the magical conceit of the book. This memoir reads like a novel, is meticulously researched, walks at night with Wittgenstein, and explains the brooding of Rachmaninov; it then provides wistful acknowledgements by Julian Barnes himself (not “Josephine,” as his parents had indeed hoped) on his sense of biology: “my grasp of sexual matters had all the vivid imbalance of a sisterless autodidact at a boys-only school.”
Always thoughtful, Nothing is often laugh-out-loud funny. Even for nos amours, the Raptors, I could not put it down.