Levels of Life, by Julian Barnes, Jonathan Cape, RRP£10.99, 128 pages
Julian Barnes once confessed to me that there were some things that it was impossible to write about. Randomly cruel events trumped the forensic pickings of the author’s imagination. “The idea that a sudden crisis or drama can actually precipitate the correct words in the brain ... well, that doesn’t correspond with my reality,” he said. Some context: we were doing a Lunch with the FT interview on the day after the 7/7 bombings in London. I had asked him if he felt tempted to write about the event, but he replied that words, in this case, failed him: “I could easily come up with some banal verbiage but enough of that is being churned up already.” And we continued our lunch.
The death of Barnes’s wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh, four and a half years ago, must have prompted similar fears. How to do writerly justice to an event that had shaken and changed him so profoundly? In a 2011 review for the New York Review of Books, he talked of the “unfalsifiable” nature of autobiographical accounts of grief. “The book is repetitive? So is grief. The book is obsessive? So is grief. The book is at times incoherent? So is grief.” Barnes stepped back from talking about his own feelings in the essay but of course they ran through every sentence.
In Levels of Life, Barnes has taken on the task that so intimidated him: to write about his own grief, about the years since the “passing” – a word he loathes for its euphemistic enfeeblement of such a mighty coming to pass – of his wife. It is no criticism of the book to say that he does so obscurely – at least at first. That is one of its strengths. Rather than be thrown into a confessional mode that might have appeared maudlin, or overly bitter or, worst of all, banal, we are eased into Barnes’s story through two preceding sections that act as a frame for his own memoir of devastation.
The effect is both distancing and contextualising. Grief is an eruption of feelings but also part of a normal life. Like our feelings towards childbirth, the lamentations over a lost life are at the same time unique and universal. Levels of Life cannot help but be part of Barnes’s mourning process. “Writers believe in the patterns their words make,” he writes, “which they hope and trust add up to ideas, to stories, to truths.”
The book’s first section is a typically playful Barnesian discourse on ballooning – light-hearted and erudite – in which the author’s metaphors are given a sprightly workout before he will later employ them in more onerous duties. The very first sentences – “You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed” – are nominally about the essay’s subjects, ballooning and photography, but also apply obviously to the alchemy of a great love affair.
Love makes its proper entrance in the middle section, which imagines a frustrated relationship between Fred Burnaby, a 19th-century English officer and balloonist, and Sarah Bernhardt, the actress and sensualist. The affair is doomed. The balloonist flies high and is then brought abruptly to earth. “Some soar with art, others with religion; most with love,” writes Barnes. “But when we soar, we can also crash.” The actress, for her part, avoids the problem altogether. “[I am] so thin, that I can slip between raindrops without getting wet,” she warns the flood of passion that is her would-be lover.
We enter the third part of the book, Barnes’s infernal account, forewarned and giddy with trepidation. Balloons crash, and so do love affairs. But how to pick up the pieces? Barnes and Kavanagh were together for 30 years, and were given precisely 37 days, from diagnosis until death, to deal with the end of their relationship. “We are bad at dealing with death,” says Barnes, and he talks frankly of ignoble feelings: his “testing” of friends, of his appalled reaction at scarcely credible insensitivities. One couple sent him an email, on the day of Kavanagh’s death, offering to look after the Barneses’ house (“we’d have a garden for Freddie [their dog]”, they said), while he took a holiday.
He immerses himself in satellite coverage of insignificant football matches and the high melodrama of opera. Here was his “new social realism”: Middlesbrough versus Slovan Bratislava, and Orfeo ed Euridice. He is withering on religion. A Christian friend says he will pray for Kavanagh; Barnes later responds, “not without bitterness”, that his friend’s god “didn’t seem to have been very effective”. She might have suffered more, says the friend. “Ah,” counters Barnes in his thoughts, “so that’s the best your pale Galilean and his dad can do”.
Finally, Barnes brings his themes to some kind of hard-won resolution, movingly, and with improbable dialectical neatness. “The paradox of grief: if I have survived what is now four years of her absence, it is because I have had four years of her presence,” he writes. The balloon is safely steered to ground. But only just.
Peter Aspden is the FT’s arts writer