Book review: Levels of Life by Julian Barnes

WHETHER there was much literary significance to Julian Barnes’s 2011 Man Booker Prize win is debatable.

Levels Of Life

Julian Barnes

Jonathan Cape, £10.99

His novella The Sense Of An Ending looked very much like a compromise choice in a year when the prize got derailed, and its jurors were rendered insecure and stroppy, by tedious reverse-snobbish nonsense about the importance of “readability”.

Certainly it was more than possible to read the novel in an afternoon, if you so wished. But it was a prim, bitter little thing, which wrung unwarranted moral fuss out of some minor familial tawdriness and took an alarmingly dim view of its female characters along the way.

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What a Man Booker Prize does signify is a considerable increase in a writer’s value to his or her publisher. This can express itself via support for projects that might not have been so welcome with a less-garlanded name attached. Barnes was a beloved and bankable name before his Booker, of course. But the ­added kudos can’t have hurt when he offered this: a non-fiction meditation on early flight technology, the love life of the actress Sarah Bernhardt and the unassuageable agony of grief.

A further indulgence here is the placement of a photograph and biography of the book’s dedicatee, Barnes’s late wife, Pat Kavanagh, on the dust­jacket next to his own, as if she were his co-writer. This is a bit odd, since she wasn’t – although her death from a brain tumour in 2008 is the source of the aforementioned grief. But it also reads as strangely self-important, as if Barnes is striving to out-dedicate other writers. The implied sense of a tribute of more than customary weight is, as we shall see, not confined to the manner of the dedication.

The book’s opening section is a collation of quaint, likable trivia about hot air ballooning and the hot-headed dreamers who drove and enjoyed its initial stages of development. One early adopter was the determinedly eccentric Bernhardt – keeper of exotic beasts, adventurous hobbies and many lovers, possibly including the English soldier and explorer Frederick Burnaby.

The second portion of Barnes’s book is an extrapolation of what may have transpired between this couple. Their imagined romance is linked to the book’s first section via many ungainly flight metaphors – I am quoting but a few when I note that lovers, ascending, “see further, and they see more clearly”, although “when we soar, we also crash”, and “there are few soft landings”.

Barnes’s prose here is what a fashion person would call “matchy-matchy”: over-co-ordinated­; rendered naff by its tortured efforts to resonate with itself. Bernhardt and Burnaby never seem like 
real people; they’re stiff bit-part players, enlisted to awkwardly link Barnes’s oh-so-gentle musings on balloons to his pained and painful treatise on loss.

Might any additional significance be ascribed to the presence here, in a marital grief memoir, of the tale of a frustrated suitor who can’t pin down a voracious libertine to domesticity? “Love may not be evenly matched. Perhaps it never is,” Barnes muses; and, “The conventional accept and are frequently charmed by a certain unconventionality.” But ponderings as to how this story might resonate with that of Barnes and Kavanagh will go unencouraged by the author. Indeed, Kavanagh doesn’t really feature in the book alive; Barnes’s concern is much more the inadequacy of those around him in dealing with his unhappy state following her death. Some friends have sinned by, over dinner, failing to talk about Kavanagh as if she were still alive. Another has dared to write to him expressing the hope that his grief might one day prove to have made him stronger.

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These outrages are described in enough detail to ensure that their perpetrators can recognise themselves. One hopes the husband of the female friend who tells Barnes she envies him his pure grief, since her own reaction to her spouse’s death would be “more complicated”, will not. But Barnes’s lack of concern over this is characteristic of a startlingly solipsistic work.

Certainly his sorrow is real, and pitiable; and many will admire his honesty in revealing how raw and negative it’s left him. But one does rather wish that his dissection of it came with some sign of his being able to move towards acceptance that a death at 68, after a life well-lived and a 30-year marriage, might not be the worst thing that has ever happened.

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Certainly one wishes that he might consider forgiving others for their perceived clumsiness in adapting to his complex needs.

Barnes does finally acknowledge that “there are many traps and dangers in grief… self-pity, isolationism, world-scorn”, going on to note that mourning can “become competitive… The grief-struck demand sympathy, yet… underestimate the pain others are suffering over the same loss.” (Or maybe even, dare one suggest, different losses, losses of their very own!) But these grudging, indirect admissions come right at the end – only after he’s let those very tendencies run rampant over his ­pages.

Of which, once again, there are very few – you’ll need to be a very passionate Barnes fan to drop £10.99 on what’s essentially a beautifully produced pamphlet.

Twitter: @scotsmandavid