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Levels of Life

Andrew Tate

RBarnes.jpgJulian Barnes

Jonathan Cape

Writing candidly about the people we love is difficult; to write faithfully of those we have loved and lost to the everyday outrage of death seems impossible. How to avoid cliché or deceptive euphemism or sterile platitude? Yet literary history is punctuated by authors who have risked speaking of personal loss: Tennyson's In Memoriam, A. H. H., an act of remembrance for a friend, demanded 17 years of the poet's life. C. S. Lewis tracked the emotional crisis that followed the death of his wife, Joy Davidman, in his viscerally anguished short memoir, A Grief Observed. The book was raw and full of angry theological questions and Lewis, well known as a defender of orthodox (or 'mere') Christianity, originally issued the book under a pseudonym. Julian Barnes' Levels of Life is, then, part of a tradition of 'griefstruck' writers who refuse to remain peacefully, privately sad. 'Every love story is a potential grief story,' notes Barnes, with elegant, devastating clarity. The author has recent experience of profound personal sorrow: in 2008, Pat Kavanagh, his wife of 30 years, died of a brain tumour. Barnes wrote powerfully (but more theoretically) of death in Nothing to be Frightened Of, published months before her diagnosis. The new book has echoes of that sharp, rather abstract long essay but it is a much tougher read. And, though written from a non-theist perspective it is as defiantly theological in its sceptical way as both Lewis and Tennyson's spiritual meditations.

Levels of Life is split into three short sections: 'The Sin of Height' (an essay on 19th-century balloonists and photography), 'On the Level' (a short story about balloonists, photography and the risk of passion) and 'The Loss of Depth' (a memoir of grief for Barnes' wife). The final section in which he explores the 'lostness of the griefstruck' is as clear-sighted and sharp as anything he has written. This triptych might seem like an odd way of writing about the indivisibility of love and grief but its emphasis, from the start, is on the ways in which peculiar encounters produce new, sometimes dynamic phenomena. 'You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed,' Barnes observes. The spatial metaphor of each chapter title is not just a handy device: it ties together the book's (and Barnes') recurrent interest in the yearning for transcendent reality that seems reluctant to disappear. The amateur aeronauts of the 1860s perilously aspired to the level once ascribed to the divine ('To mess with flight was to mess with God'). This aspiration to fly - occasionally punished in Icarus-like failure - becomes a symbol of other, more spiritual kinds of journey: 'We live on the flat, on the level, and yet - and so - we aspire [. . .] Some soar with art, others with religion; most with love'. This trinity of art, religion and love  is an echo of one of Barnes' finest pieces of writing, 'Parenthesis' - the half-chapter of The History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters - but it is also resonant of St Paul's greatest hit, the frequently quoted commendation of love to the Corinthian church. For Barnes, grief is not simply nostalgia, an act of mourning in memory, but also an awareness of 'our lost future'.

There is a religious quality to Barnes' unfashionable commitment to love. This is not to suggest that this cerebral, sceptical but compassionate writer is a clandestine man of faith. 'I don't believe in God, but I miss Him,' he confessed in the opening sentence of Nothing to Be Frightened Of. Levels of Life is similarly concerned with such paradoxes of sacrificed faith: 'When we killed - or exiled - God, we also killed ourselves. Did we notice that sufficiently at the time?'. The loss of God in the heights is, for Barnes, also a 'loss of depth'. However, he continually - bravely, perhaps - refuses what he regards as the false consolations of religion ('entitlement - the belief in some cosmic [. . .] reward system - is another delusion, another vanity'). After an encounter with a rare Christian acquaintance who offered to pray, Barnes notes that 'shockingly soon' he informed the believer that 'his god didn't seem to have been very effective'. It is tempting in such situations to offer words of resurrection hope but another biblical passage that encourages believers to 'mourn with those who mourn' might be more appropriate.

Our culture is good at not talking about death. We either make it a ludicrous spectacle in apparently endless TV and film pseudo-fatalities or deny its reality altogether. I was struck by Barnes' honest impatience with the plethora of euphemisms offered by friends and acquaintances in the months after his wife's death. We are, I think, suspicious of the language of emotion: affect has become a debased currency in an era of manipulative reality television. It will, I suspect, be cold comfort for the author that this powerful, emotionally-precise memoir is the kind of book that may help readers recover an awareness of the integrity of their feelings. We are so surrounded by death that it is easy to become anaesthetized not just to the suffering of others but to the reality of our shared losses. Barnes is doing a thing most of us are likely to evade: he addresses the contours of his grief openly and without apology.


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