By Julian Barnes
256 pages; Knopf
In his elegant and gentlemanly way, Julian Barnes might be the most eccentric and seductive of contemporary British writers. He has made novels from Flaubert's story of a parrot and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's chats with the dead. Barnes's newest, Nothing to Be Frightened Of (Knopf), is a memoir, but not of the usual kind. It is, rather, a meandering, lighthearted philosophical argument about the existence of God—desirable but, for Barnes finally, not believable, about death, and about the effect both of these have on memory and meaning as life approaches its end. Barnes says that if his parents' longevity is an indicator, he is about three-quarters of the way through his life, "though," he warns, "we know death to be contradictory, and should expect any railway station, pavement, overheated office, or pedestrian crossing to be called Samarra." The major figure to inhabit these pages aside from Barnes himself is his older brother, an actual philosopher whose sibling skepticism and (often imagined) grumbling critiques hang over Barnes's shoulder, in immensely charming ways, all through the book. Barnes is a writer of ideas who takes no idea particularly seriously, which makes him very entertaining and, best of all, wholesomely provocative.