Levels of Life, by Julian Barnes
The English novelist’s non-fiction account of his grief following the death of his wife is brave, moving and heartfelt
Levels of Life
Grief is not a poem; it is a knife thrust deep into the heart, the death blow not to the one who died but to the survivor. It is impossible to explain, yet one could begin with the obvious: the greater the love, the more immense will be the sorrow, the loss, the void.
Each of us has our own way of dealing with death. Some see it as a fact of life; others regard it as the supreme act of injustice. Take your pick. Perhaps it is about memory or loyalty; or is it merely self-indulgent, selfish, competitive? We will feel – some may even say it – that our grief is bigger, more valid than yours. Beat that.
It has a way of telling us as much about ourselves as it does about the special person we have lost: father, mother, sister, brother, lover, friend, companion. But defining words don’t reach the core essence of the loss. Grief makes the mind race, the spirits slump. Images march relentlessly through a strange cinema that is open all hours in the space in front of your eyes. There are books about and guides to how to stumble through the darkness and eventually crawl back towards the light. The days, the months, the years will, allegedly, become less empty, or so the experts claim.
Initially there is the howl – that is accepted – but then the world expects grief to go underground. Onlookers will decide when it should be over, when the bereaved should be cured and all lamentation end.
The English writer Julian Barnes, winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize on his fourth shortlisting, is clever; his work is intelligent and witty, graced with irony. His intelligence is intellectual in the truest sense. Who would have predicted that he, not known for tearing his hair in public, would write as moving, heartfelt, exact and telling a book as Levels of Life , part essay, part memoir, part love story, part confession? Well, he has, and anyone who has ever been paralysed by grief and loss, the sensation of emptiness experienced when your life’s love and support vanishes, should read this and feel grateful to him.
Those readers who are uninterested in grief, or who perhaps are simply good at dealing with it, should not read this book, as its intent will not only be lost but may even irritate. Levels of Life will divide readers, but those who do want to read it may be comforted when they discover that it is not wrong or stupid or particularly weak to feel that grief has left you disembowelled and that others, too, howl in the night and punch the walls (not that Barnes punches walls) and rail at the unfairness. Barnes contemplates suicide; he explores what it is like to be human, hurt and lost – and this takes courage on several counts.
Many have praised his writing, which is so astute that he frequently pays the ultimate price and is praised in a way that all novelists must dread, critics tending to say that his nonfiction surpasses his fiction. Barnes the essayist is brilliant with facts, observation and sporting analogies; he brings history and literary references to life. His wonderful confection Flaubert’s Parrot (1984) dazzles with curiosity and with Barnes’s flair for seeing connections and evoking their humanity. A later work, Arthur & George (2005), possessed a warmth that engaged and moved yet also surprised. Barnes, often the victim of his cool discernment, having written in 2008 an essay about coming to terms with dying, has now taken a dangerously courageous step in a remarkable narrative that is as raw in its emotion as it is characteristically elegant in its execution.
Part of the story is in the public domain. Barnes met the South African-born Pat Kavanagh in 1978, and they married the following year. He was then at the beginning of his literary career. She would become one of the most formidable and respected agents. However trite it sounds, they were a power couple. When I arrived at their fine north London home, ordered and calm, light streaming through the windows, they struck me as one. She was the protector; he was a writer who was safe in his haven, free to write. They had each other. She had strayed, publicly, in an affair with the writer Jeanette Winterson, yet that didn’t matter.
But Kavanagh died suddenly, at 68, in October 2008, after a 37-day illness. Barnes makes no secret of his loss. His natural reserve proves a brilliant foil to what is, in this age of cynicism, an incredibly brave, vulnerable and human account of his heartsickness and despairing efforts to keep his Eurydice alive through the power of memory.
It is a very English book, or perhaps it seems so to me. That is not a criticism. Barnes the polite host opens the door and presents a beguiling collection of facts about 19th-century adventures in ballooning. His choice of characters includes Felix Tournachon (1820-1910), better known as Nadar, a portrait photographer whose work includes pioneering aerial shots of Paris taken from a balloon; Sarah Bernhardt, actor, femme fatale and keeper of exotic menageries; and Bernhardt’s besotted lover, Col Fred Burnaby, of the Royal Horseguards, who loved and lost the elusive stage star but did later give his name, through marriage, to a part of Greystones, in Co Wicklow. He set off to die in Khartoum at the battle of Abu Klea.
Barnes playfully and ingeniously spins a rich and lively tale that is good on the history and insightful on the humanity. It also echoes Flaubert’s Parrot . Included among the many glorious asides is a touching reference to a parrot that shares a cage with a monkey that torments it. Yet when the monkey is taken away, the bird is distressed. The monkey is returned to the cage.
We soar, we fall. Love is like that, as is life. By the third part of the book, Barnes is ready to step out from behind story and metaphors, to speak directly of his pain. The prose is measured yet conversational. “I mourn her uncomplicatedly, and absolutely. This is my good luck, and also my bad luck.”
As a reader who continues to maintain that Flaubert’s Parrot remains his finest book, I think this brief, very brave book may well surge past Arthur & George . The account of Barnes attending a London cinema broadcast, from New York, of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice is subtle and moving in his response and identification with the work, as is a later description of his experience of a live production in modern dress.
Julian Barnes has lived and loved and lost; his articulation of the nightmare world of grieving is rare and moving and real. This admission of loss, this cry from the heart, will unsettle and divide. It may also comfort, and for this he should be commended.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent