Here’s a sentence almost any of us would be happy to have written, an aphoristic nugget that can hold its own with Oscar Wilde or La Rochefoucauld: “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him.” Some of its brilliance lies in its rhythm, its strong iambic beat. But that little packet also encapsulates an entire attitude toward the spiritual life, a very English attitude that now seems a historical relic; something Victorian, like Matthew Arnold in “Dover Beach,” mourning the receding Sea of Faith. There’s no exalted note of sadness here, though, and instead it’s wan and wry and rueful, as though the writer’s unbelief were neither desperate nor contented; just an itch his prose might scratch. It’s pithier than Arnold, and funny, clever even as it looks sincere—opposing qualities that are made to march in step.
The words belong to Julian Barnes, and stand as the opening sentence of Nothing to Be Frightened Of (2008), a book-length essay whose title is a double-entendre. Death is nothing to be frightened of; it’s also the nothing that frightens. Barnes writes that he has never been to a “normal” church service, only the trinity of baptisms, funerals, and weddings, and worries away at the question of how an irreligious man can face his own mortality. He looks to figures like Montaigne and Stendhal for answers, but his most regular interlocutor is his older brother, Jonathan, an academic philosopher who figures here as the eccentric Mycroft to his junior’s attention-grabbing Sherlock. Offered that first sentence, Jonathan’s response is tersely unforgiving: “Soppy.” Though of course it’s Julian who has allowed his brother’s judgment in.
Large matters handled lightly, weighty questions entertained entertainingly: that’s Barnes’s special province. The sincerity is never less than lapidary, the cleverness never mere cleverness. Or…almost never? That’s been the question ever since Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), his third book and the one that made his name. Barnes’s oeuvre is large, varied, and uneven, and it includes a few novels I’ve never been able to finish. Talking It Over (1991) is one of them, with its alternating first-person testimonies of the three sides in an adulterous triangle; England, England (1998) is another, a fantasia in which the Isle of Wight gets turned into a theme park repository of the nation’s cultural clichés. High-concept, both of them, stunts one might sell in an elevator pitch.
But at his best Barnes’s cleverness depends on his sincerity, in a way that makes him the most essayistic of contemporary novelists, the one most comfortable in feigning a form of direct address. He allows his narrators to seem as if they are speaking to his readers themselves, asking questions and then playing with their terms, flipping them over like rocks to see what’s underneath. That has led to an uncanny continuity between his novels and his nonfiction, a continuity in voice and even at times in form. So in…
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