Book review: Levels of Life by Julian Barnes

In March 2008, Julian Barnes published a book called Nothing To Be Frightened Of, a meditative memoir circling around his own fear of death, his own death. “I’ve never seen anyone die, and may never do so, unless and until I see myself die,” he wrote.

Levels of Life

by Julian Barnes

Jonathan Cape, 128pp £10.99

That autumn, his wife of 30 years, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh, was diagnosed with brain cancer and just 37 days later, on 20 October 2008, she died. Until now, Julian Barnes has chosen not to write about her death and his grief, beyond an essay called “Regulating Sorrow”, originally published as a review of the bereavement memoirs of Joan Didion and Joyce Carol Oates, in which he does not mention her but his own experience is everywhere felt. Ever since her death, he has changed the dedication of his books from “To Pat” to “For Pat”, pointed as ever.

Levels of Life, published unannounced, a 118-page octavo volume, is a wholly Barnesian production, in three parts, the last being a 50-page memoir of his grieving.

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Once more, Barnes writes about Franco-British relations, caressing documentary material into literary shape. The first section, The Sin of Height, is a gamesome account of three pioneer 19th-century balloonists, the British military adventurer Fred Burnaby, the sexy actress Sarah Bernhardt and the great photographer Nadar, initially introduced under his real name of Felix Tournachon.

Barnes begins: “You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed.” Here ascent by balloon and the development of photography came together to permit the first “aerostatic” photographs, an innovation culminating eventually in the great “Earthrise” picture taken from Apollo 8 in 1968.

The second section, a story called On The Level, moves on to putting two people together who have not been together before – “sometimes, something new is made, and then the world is changed”. They are Burnaby and Bernhardt, imagined as having a love affair which ends to Burnaby’s great chagrin. Though we live on the flat, we aspire, says Barnes sententiously. “Some soar with art, others with religion; most with love. But when we soar, we can also crash. There are few soft landings.”

The third section, The Loss of Depth, turns to Barnes’s experience of bereavement, proposing now that when you put two people together and then one of them is taken away, “what is taken away is greater than the sum of what was there. This may not be mathematically possible; but it is emotionally possible.”

Barnes uses the up and down metaphors and the ballooning and photography images and allusions, which he has so carefully set up in the first two parts, to structure and illustrate his memoir here – for example comparing his voyage into grief to being in a balloon, in cloud, unable to tell if you are marooned or in motion. These literary devices were perhaps necessary to him to be able to approach the agonised subject matter but they can seem mannered to the reader.

They are unnecessary because what Barnes tells us most directly is most moving. “I was thirty-two when we met, sixty-two when she died, the heart of my life; the life of my heart.”

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He describes how he contemplated suicide: “I knew soon enough my preferred method – a hot bath, a glass of wine next to the taps, and an exceptionally sharp Japanese carving knife. I thought of that solution fairly often, and still do.” What convinced him not to do this was the realisation “that, insofar as she was alive at all, she was alive in my memory” and thus killing himself would be killing her.

He notices strange continuities. “I used to rub oil into her back because her skin dried easily; now I rub oil into the drying oak of her grave-marker.” He lives, he says, not so much in “loneliness as her-lessness”. He talks to her constantly, still. “The fact that someone is dead may mean that they are not alive, but doesn’t mean they do not exist.”

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Dreams, in which “she arrives looking and acting very like herself”, prove “more reliable, more secure, than memory”. But then after three years, in one of these happy dreams “suddenly she realised that this could not be true, and it all must be a dream, because she now knew that she was dead.”

All of this is very affecting and immediately recognisable to all who have been bereaved: common in the best sense. Yet Barnes devotes a surprising amount of this short text to pernicketiness about other people and their failures of tact and sympathy, or merely their use of euphemisms.

“I swiftly realised how grief sorts out and realigns those around the griefstruck; how friends are tested; how some pass, some fail.” At a dinner-table, friends failed to respond when he mentioned her. “Afraid to touch her name, they denied her thrice, and I thought the worse of them for it.” Perhaps they were nervous of his judgment of what they might say?

For Barnes is a great precisian, even though, like the rest of us, he is not always precise (he misquotes Yeats and misdates Nadar’s earliest surviving aerial photography). But then, as he says, among many other sharp observations, “we grieve in character”.