by Julian Barnes; Knopf, 2013; 128 pages; $22.95.
This new work by Julian Barnes — his novel “The Sense of an Ending” won the 2011 Man Booker Prize — begins with this observation: “You put two things together that have not been put together before. And the world is changed. People may not notice at the time, but that doesn’t matter. The world has changed nonetheless.”
“Levels of Life” is a slim volume, but the changes it makes in its readers are anything but slim.
In Barnes’ hands, ballooning joined with photography engenders aerial photography. Legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt and famed balloonist Colonel Fred Burnaby of the Royal Horse Guards become something only they understand. Height bumps up against depth.
And love is tested by death, what Barnes calls “that banal, unique thing.”
“Some soar with art, others with religion; most with love. But when we soar we can also crash. There are few soft landings.” And what is measured in the last half of this exquisitely sad little book is Barnes’ grief over the loss of his beloved wife Pat Kavanagh, a literary agent whom he movingly refuses to call by name at any point.
The tearing apart of his love for his wife, “the universe doing its stuff,” comprises the most moving sections of “Levels of Life.” His wife suffered for one month, but Barnes’ loneliness, his grief, continues. The world around him has not experienced the marriage he had, therefore the world around him cannot understand the pain and cannot help him lessen it. He must simply put up with that world even as he reminds himself that “pain shows that you have not forgotten; pain enhances the flavour of memory; pain is the proof of love.”
Barnes eventually realizes that he has made “some sort of progress.” He can finally sit down to read a book as he had once been able to. He patiently awaits “the time when life turns back from opera to realist fiction.” He can keep self-pity at bay. His daily tears stop. He finds comfort, even redemption of sorts, in his own art, in his writing.
It is a difficult journey for Barnes, and it is often a difficult journey for readers of this raw, heartbreaking book. But we are in the hands of a true master. As we deal with the sadness of Julian Barnes, “Levels of Life” is there to remind us that pain means that we are alive. Pain means we have not forgotten that two disparate things came together and that the world has been forever changed.
Steven Whitton is an English professor at Jacksonville State University.