Barnes’ sad memoir of wife’s death a celebration of love

Levels of Life
Julian Barnes
Vintage Books 11.50
Review: Alannah Hopkin

In 2008 Julian Barnes’ wife Pat Kavanagh, was diagnosed with a brain tumour. She died 37 days later. They had been together for 30 years. Levels of Life is not a conventional memoir: it is an account of grief and loss. ‘Grief, like death, is banal and unique,’ Barnes writes, near the beginning of the final section of this strange and viscerally sad piece of writing, which is also a meditation on love and the loss of love.

As well as being a Booker Prize-winning novelist, Barnes is also an accomplished essayist, and a valued contributor to the New Yorker. In order to write about something so close to him and so painful, Barnes begins by writing about something else. The first part of three, ‘The Sin of Height’, is about the early days of ballooning. Each of the three sections begins with a hypnotically repeated image: ‘You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the World is changed.’ The analogy with the way that the world changes when you fall in love is implicit in this beautifully modulated, finely detailed account of Colonel Fred Burnaby, Sarah Bernhardt and Félix Tournachon’s ballooning adventures.

The balloonist Tournachon was better known as Nadar, a pioneer of aerial photography, who also photographed the young Sarah Bernhardt, who claimed to be so thin that she could slip between raindrops without getting wet. She becomes briefly the mistress of Fred Burnaby, ending the affair when he makes the mistake of proposing marriage.

Images from the fable-like ballooning adventures reappear in the final section, ‘The Loss of Depth’, Barnes’s unflinching attempt to describe the pain of losing a loved one. The pain is proportionate to the love, a widowed friend advises him, which he finds helpful. He loathes the euphemisms used by those avoiding the word death, and becomes belligerent when well-meaning friends avoid referring to his late wife at the dinner table, which he finds cowardly. Suicide is carefully planned in every detail, but never attempted. For the first three years he dreams of his late wife constantly, and talks to her in his mind. The loneliness of loss is an acute part of being what he calls “griefstruck”. Yet it is preferable to the loneliness of never having found someone to love.

His wife is never named in the text, though her picture is inside the cover. By some strange alchemy, Barnes’s account of his loss becomes a celebration of his love, and for all the acuteness of its descriptions of sorrow, the book has an uplifting, life-affirming quality, and leaves the reader elated rather than depressed.


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