The English novelist Julian Barnes lost his wife several years ago, and in Levels of Life he writes his way through grief. Adam Begley on an unconventional memoir/story/essay.
Joan Didion wrote The Year of Magical Thinking in the twelve months following the death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne; Antonia Fraser was nearly as speedy with Must You Go? My Life with Harold Pinter; and Joyce Carol Oates’ A Widow’s Story was mostly composed of raw journal entries from the early weeks and months after the death of her editor husband. Julian Barnes is the outlier in the mini-trend of grieving writers lamenting late literary spouses: He waited a full four years before offering us Levels of Life, a memorial to his wife of three decades, Pat Kavanagh, a London literary agent. The pause paid off: Barnes has distilled his grief—refined and compacted it—and the result is a powerful dirge and slender but shapely work of art.
Levels of Life is an outlier in other respects, too. Part essay, part short story, part memoir, it defies categorization. Barnes supplies no explanation or justification for its unusual construction, for the unannounced swerve from fact to fiction. His book must be accepted on its own terms; like his grief, it is unique to the circumstance.
He begins with a lively historical essay on ballooning and photography, which introduces us to his three principals: A bluff, dashing Englishman, Fred Burnaby (1842–1885), a soldier and adventurer who crossed the Channel in a hot air balloon in 1882; Gaspard-Félix Tournachon (1820–1910), better known as Nadar, a genius photographer and ardent proponent of aeronautics; and the divine Sarah Bernhardt (1844–1923), who was, in addition to being the world’s most famous actress, another “balloonatic.” Anecdotes about the thrills and perils of ballooning’s infancy segue into the story of Nadar’s attempts to produce the first sky-based photograph.
Flight allowed mankind a new perspective on itself, which aerial photography eventually captured and disseminated. Barnes fast-forwards to the 1968 Apollo 8 mission and the unforgettable first glimpse of Earthrise—the cold, distant blue ball of our planet hovering in darkness above the barren moonscape—to make the case that seeing ourselves from above was a “psychic shock.” As he puts it, when you “put together two things that have not been put together before … the world is changed.”
Putting together two things is what Barnes does to fine effect in the second section of Levels of Life. He plays matchmaker to Fred Burnaby and Sarah Bernhardt, launching a love affair that is at once entirely plausible and purely made up. The tone of the book changes almost imperceptibly, and suddenly we’re voyeurs, eavesdropping on an invented 19th-century dalliance. Watching Bernhardt charm Burnaby, and watching Burnaby fall helplessly in love—“‘Hook, line and sinker,’ he said to his uniformed reflection in the cheval glass of his hotel bedroom”—is fun for the reader, and obviously fun for Barnes. In Nothing to Be Frightened Of, an extended meditation on family and mortality written a couple of years before Kavanagh’s death, he remarked on those moments when a writer’s imagination “catches a sudden upcurrent and the weightless, wonderful soaring that is the basis of fiction delightingly happens.” Who needs a balloon?
We land with a bump in the third section of the book, a seemingly artless account of Barnes’ devastation. “It was thirty-seven days from diagnosis to death.” He doesn’t identify his wife’s illness (brain cancer according to her obituary); he provides absolutely no information about her life before him or apart from him; and gives us only brief, hazy glimpses of their life together. In short, he presents us with an absence.
The report of his anguish at that absence is unsparing, and brutally convincing. A friend, herself a heartbroken widow, tells the heartbroken widower, “The thing is—nature is so exact, it hurts exactly as much as it is worth, so in a way, one relishes the pain.” The grieving is commensurate with the loving, a testament to what’s missing.
On its own, this third section would be unbearable: too sad, too thin. But juxtaposition with the essay and the short story triggers a kind of expansion of meaning that lifts the memoir out of its swampy misery. Barnes weaves echoes of the first two sections into the third. Allusions to ballooning and Nadar’s aerial photography, along with Burnaby and Bernhardt’s fictive romance, recur repeatedly, an insistent leitmotif—and this, oddly enough, swells hope for Barnes’ recovery.
Grief, he tells us, “destroys all patterns, destroys even more: the belief that any pattern exists.” But he also tells us, “Writers believe in the patterns their words make, which they hope and trust add up to ideas, to stories, to truths.” The man who sat down to write Levels of Life several years after his wife’s death has clearly regained his hope and trust in the patterns made by words.
Barnes quotes E.M. Forster: “One death may explain itself, but it throws no light upon another.” Grief is isolating, dividing the mourner from anyone who has yet to endure grief. This division is “absolute,” according to Barnes—and yet the purpose of his book is to show us how it feels to be on the other side. The book succeeds, thanks to the patient and meticulous work that went into its construction, and thanks also to the “roaring sense of uplift” you get when you put together two things that have not been put together before.