Julian Barnes’ latest book is a short nonfiction work that has emerged, dense and compressed, from beneath the weight of his still recent widowhood. His wife, Pat Kavanagh, a celebrated literary agent, to whom he was married for 29 years, died after a sudden illness in 2008. Levels of Life is a reaction, then, a considered triptych of essays that don’t actually touch upon the issue of bereavement for some 65 pages.
First we have an essay on ballooning and photography, in which the likes of actress Sarah Bernhardt, Colonel Fred Burnaby and Felix Tournachon take short, often difficult, journeys in balloons and see the world from a position that few people at the time had. There are collisions, near misses and bumpy landings, ruminations on magic, freedom, democracy and photography – this last providing a sort of counterpoint of flight. As with Barnes’ earlier work, Flaubert’s Parrot, he has woven a lattice of research and erudition into a compelling narrative that is fixed, much like the basket at the bottom of the balloon, to the line: ‘You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed.’
The second part of the book is a love story, of sorts, a reimagining of a short relationship between Bernhardt and Burnaby, in which military man Burnaby comes something of a cropper, Bernhardt a creature of the air, at one with flight, reluctant to be tied down, as much a prisoner of her impulses and the balloon she is keen to adventure in. Regular readers of Barnes will find the closest he comes to fiction here, the telling touches, understated dialogue and brief forays into the minds of his characters exquisitely judged. In some respects, the middle portion of Levels of Life offers a glimpse of the hurt to come but the glimpse is almost besides the point. The lesson, if it could be called a lesson, is what Burnaby does in the wake of his heartbreak: he tries his best to put it behind him, he gets on with his life, even if the life he gets on with is a pale shadow of the life that preceded it.
The final essay of the book is intimate, then, shocking in places, Barnes still reeling from an unrecoverable hurt. He does not go into detail about his marriage (we learn what we learn only really in terms of what has been lost) – the essay is more concerned with what comes after. The pain of separation, the pain of repetition, the awful way in which people try to console. Barnes talks about ‘grief work’, the combination of effort, failure and pain to get by the impediment of grief, even as part of you wonders if you actually want to get by it (or even can). There is also a recognition of the variety of pain, the different ways in which people suffer, perceived slights like death by a thousand paper cuts to some and not to others. Levels of Life has hope, though, a concluding dream offering the possibility of something, ‘ an unexpected breeze’ that could take the bereaved widow somewhere – ‘with luck, to France’.
Any Cop?: It is not, it should be said, a happy read – but it is a worthwhile read, irrespective, I think, of whether you have ever suffered such a loss yourself.