Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #22: Levels of Life by Julian Barnes

All grief is unique, as all lives are unique. The specific person lost, the one left behind feeling that pain -- others can sympathize, and feel their own grief, but it's never the same. So the husband grieving his wife won't feel the same as the brother who lost a sister, even if they're grieving the same person. And vice versa. We are all alone.

It may have been morbid of me to pick up Julian Barnes's Levels of Life -- a meditation of the death of his wife in 2008, mixed, as Barnes always will, with other matters -- the day after my own father-in-law died. But my grief was so different from Barnes's that I went ahead: I'd had this book planned to be next in the reading pile, so avoiding it would have meant something I didn't want it to. Is that strength or weakness? I don't know.

For a book on grief, Levels of Life spends an awful lot of its slim length on ballooning and two particular balloonists: the great actress Sarah Bernhardt and one of her many lovers, Captain Fred Burnaby of the Royal Horse Guards. It's divided into three sections -- The Sin of Height, On the Level, and The Loss of Depth, each about a third longer than the one before -- and the first two are entirely concerned with balloons and photography and the Burnhardt-Burnaby relationship, as doomed as it was and as fictional as it may be. Perhaps all relationships are doomed, Barnes is implying, because they all end eventually, in break-up or death.

Those first two sections are classic Barnes: witty, erudite, cosmopolitan, full of ideas and history and connections. They're related to his wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh, in ways that make sense to Barnes, so he makes them make sense to us. The two sections do have different tones and focus: Height is the most factual and historical, laying out the territory as if we are seeing it from our own balloon. Level tightens in to Bernhardt and Burnaby, and how, inevitably, he wanted something she could not provide.

And then we come to The Loss of Depth, as if Barnes has sufficiently limbered up his writing fingers to do what he came to do. He doesn't tell us much about Kavanagh; this is the story of his grief, not of her. The viewpoint is now, in the world without her. I am almost entirely sympathetic with Barnes's point of view on all of the important matters: the unpleasantness of euphemisms like "passed," the utter lack of supernatural support, the way no one can say anything to make it better.

Kavanagh was apparently an accomplished and interesting woman, but, again, that's not what Barnes is after here, so she appears only in memory or dream. The Loss of Depth is entirely about what happened to Barnes after she was gone: how he felt diminished, how other people reacted, what ways forward he found.

Barnes is an intensely literary, thoughtful writer, and he doesn't peddle any platitudes here. It would take a very specific sort of person to take much solace from Levels of Life after losing a spouse. But for other Barnes readers, the lucky majority of whom have not been widowed, it's another bracing dip into his mind, a suitable follow up to Nothing to Be Frightened Of. But I would not recommend it to a new reader: those interested in fiction and conceits should try Levels of Life, while those who want to see his non-fiction in more conventional form could try Letters from London.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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