“Levels of Life” by Julian Barnes: a meditation on grief

In the 8th book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the gods Jupiter and Mercury, wandering the earth in disguise, find scant hospitality in the homes of the wealthy; however, they do find welcome from a poor and elderly couple, Philemon and Baucis. Once they reveal themselves as gods, they ask their hosts what they most desire. And their hosts reply that they would like to die at the same time. It isn’t death they seek to avoid, but the grief that accompanies loss. As reward, they pass from life simultaneously, metamorphosed into a pair of intertwining trees.

Grief is an emotion that we possibly still haven’t come to terms with, despite centuries of experience. We all know ‘tis common: all that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity; and yet, grief sticks in our throat. We know neither how to react to the grief of others, nor how to express our own. In the presence of the grief of others, we worry about appearing intrusive, or uncaring, or insincere; we worry about saying things that are trite, or sentimental, or commonplace. And silence seems no better. As for our own grief, words, once again, fail us: what we experience is so powerful that it demands to be spoken; and yet, whatever we say falls short, too short.

Many feel embarrassed by the whole thing. Some resort to “black humour”, or “gallows humour”, claiming this is the only way we can deal with emotions so powerful. Perhaps. But even if this were so (which I doubt), humour comes well short of expressing what we feel. Indeed, some may argue that it expresses quite the opposite.

Some four years ago, literary agent Pat Kavanagh, Julian Barnes’ wife of thirty years, died of a late-diagnosed cancer: “it was thirty-seven days from diagnosis to death,” Barnes tells us. In his latest book, Levels of Life, Julian Barnes writes a memoir – not of their life together, but of his grief. He is well aware of the pitfalls of writing such a book: he is laying himself open to accusations of breast-beating, and of self-pity. For what we know must be and is as common as any the most vulgar thing to sense, why should we in our peevish opposition take it to heart? Why indeed.

The theme of grief is not, of course, a new one: anyone who has thought seriously about life has also thought seriously about death. But each individual’s grief is different, because each individual is different. However, as Barnes tells us, unique though each individual grief may be, there can be overlaps. (“Griefs do not explain one another, but they may overlap.”) By focusing on the individual, light may be thrown on the general. And so Barnes focusses on the individual grief that he is, naturally, closest to: his own.

This is not a novel. Perhaps the second of its three parts contains elements of fiction: I haven’t checked. And it is hard to describe it as a “memoir” either – although I have done so earlier for convenience. Rather, it is a personal meditation on the nature of a personal grief.

But of course, no matter how sincere and deeply felt the writing may be, unless it has some sort of structure, it would be mere meandering. The titles of the three chapters given in the list of contents give a fair idea of the form of the work:

–       The Sin of Height
–       On the Level
–       The Loss of Depth

A journey from the heights to the depths – from the heights, where one may, blasphemously, take a God’s eye view on those puny human creatures; down to the level of humanity itself, without self-aggrandisement or hubris; and finally, to the depths of our deepest feelings, where we grieve for loss. Or, if we want to read the title of that last chapter differently, where we lose the sense of depth itself, and everything appears shallow and meaningless. Even so cursory a summary indicates the various different meanings that may be attached to the concepts of height and of depth – both literal, and, in various different ways, metaphorical.

Each chapter starts in almost the same way:

You put two things together that have not been put together before. And the world is changed.

You put together two things that have not been put together before; and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

And, at the start of the final chapter:

You put together two people who have not been put together before.

In the first chapter, the two things that are put together – at least in a literal sense – are hot air ballooning and photography. These two things are put together, and a new image of humanity emerges: an objective view from the heights. This view reached its culmination in the famous picture taken by Apollo astronauts of earthrise from the moon – beautiful, cold, and inhumanly objective. This first part focuses on ballooning: in prose of limpid elegance, Barnes tells us about some of the pioneering balloonists – the bluff Englishman Fred Burnaby; the glamorous and enticing celebrity Sarah Bernhardt; and the eccentric Félix Tournachon, pioneer both of ballooning and of photography. This is certainly an unexpected beginning to a book that is essentially a meditation on personal grief, but Barnes is establishing the images and emblems that are to hold the book together. In the second chapter, Barnes continues in this vein, giving us an unlikely story of Fred Burnaby’s unsuccessful wooing of Sarah Bernhardt. How much of this is true and how much fiction, I do not know.

It is in the third and the longest part that we get to the heart of the matter: the loss of depth. When two people come together, sometimes, when it works, something new is made.

Then, at some point, sooner or later, for this reason or that, one of them is taken away. And what is taken away is greater than the sum of what was there. This may not be mathematically possible; but it is emotionally possible.

What follows is hard to categorise in any conventional sense. Fiction it most certainly isn’t. The back of the dust jacket helpfully offers “biography/memoir”, but they both seem inadequate. If “meditation” were a recognised literary category, that would perhaps be more applicable.

And this is the point where readers embarrassed by direct description of powerful and personal emotion should stop. But such embarrassment is surely misplaced. Writers always have depicted human emotion, and have not shirked even the most powerful of them – and even when the emotions are their own: one thinks of Milton’s sonnet on seeing his dead wife in his dream; or Ben Jonson’s lament for his dead son; or Wordsworth’s heartbreaking sonnet about his dead daughter (he had not forgotten her, he tells us – he had merely forgotten momentarily that she was no longer alive). The Bengali-speaker will know also the disconsolate poems written by Rabindranath after the death of his young wife and two daughters within a few years, and also the poems he continued to write to the very end of his long life on those moments in which that intensity of grief would, for no apparent reason, resurge. No – however embarrassed we may feel by the direct depiction of raw and powerful emotions, such matters are legitimately within the provenance of literature.

Not that Barnes makes a show of his grief. He depicts it honestly and clearly, and soberly, knowing fully that any attempt to make an exhibition of such matters would not merely be disrespectful, but empty emotional grandstanding. The voice he speaks in is clear and lucid, quiet and thoughtful: all hint of hysteria is avoided. He speaks, amongst other things, of his anger; however, he does not believe in God, there is no-one he could direct that anger towards. So he directed it, unfairly, at others – those who said the wrong things (not that there is any right thing to be said), those who said nothing at all, those who kept away, those who didn’t. As a former lexicographer, he takes issue with the various euphemisms people use – “lost”, “passed away”, and so on, although avoidance of such euphemisms would not have helped either. As bereaved, he feels literally be-reaved, robbed: the injustice was palpable, but there is no-one whom he could possibly charge with the injustice, with the robbery. He speaks – once again calmly, without hysteria – of his thoughts of suicide, deciding against it only because with his death, his memories of his wife would die also.

He considers the various platitudes and truisms that are trotted out on these occasions. He rejects angrily Nietzsche’s assertion that whatever does not kill us makes us stronger; he also rejects the idea of time being a healer. He tells us that he still speaks to his wife, even though he is convinced that she cannot be there even in spirit. He tells us that he has become unexpectedly fond of opera, a medium he had never cared for before, because it addresses the most powerful of emotions directly and openly, and without any apology or doing so.

He rejects any consolation religion has to offer. He speaks of a Christian friend of his:

He [said] he would pray for her. I didn’t object, but shockingly soon found myself informing him, not without bitterness, that his god didn’t seem to have been very effective. He replied, “Have you ever considered that she might have suffered more?” Ah, I thought, so that’s the best your pale Galilean can do.

One does not need to be Christian to find this unfair: one cannot, after all, condemn the whole of Christianity on the basis of a few injudicious and insensitive words uttered by an adherent. But religion has nothing to offer Barnes.

Of course, had he lived, say, a hundred or so years earlier, he would have been more likely to have been a believer, or, at least, to have turned to religion at so stressful a time: our stance in these matters owes more to the currents of our times and less to our own independent thought than we’d like perhaps to think. In our age, we have “killed God”, and while Barnes thinks this was the right thing to have done, there remains a part of him that can regret this:

When we killed – or exiled – God, we also killed ourselves. Did we notice that sufficiently at the time? No God, no afterlife, no us. We were right to kill Him, of course, this long-standing imaginary friend of ours. And we weren’t going to get an afterlife anyway. But we sawed off the branch we were sitting on. And the view from there, from that height – even if it was only the illusion of a view – wasn’t so bad.

I personally cannot think much of any conviction, however true we may think it to be (we can never be certain, of course: at least, I can’t), that adds to our sorrows; but there is something admirable all the same in Barnes’ refusal to espouse that which he had rejected before. But perhaps, I can’t help feeling, we would have been better not to have sawn off that branch. As Barnes himself acknowledges at the start of this third part, there exists a truth other than pure mathematical truth.

Barnes reflects on the moral status also of love and of grief:

Love may not lead where we think or hope, but regardless of outcome it should be a call to seriousness and truth. Whereas grief, love’s opposite, does not seem to occupy a moral space. The defensive, curled position it forces us into if we are to survive makes us more selfish.

This did, I admit, strike me as odd when I read it. Is grief really the opposite of love? We grieve only for the loss of her whom we had loved, and whom we continue to love: without love, there is no grief. Is grief therefore not the complement rather than the opposite? Hamlet had, correctly, taken his mother’s lack of grief to indicate her lack of love, and, this being so, he could no longer make sense of the world, he could no longer see in life any significant pattern. The intensity of grief seems to me an indication that what we are grieving for is worth grieving for. And, maybe, that does in itself render life – even without any thought of a possible afterlife – at least some semblance of a significance.

Barnes later changes his mind on this point, but his reason for thinking of grief as not occupying a moral space is an interesting one: to survive grief, he says, we must be selfish. This is an area of the human mind with which I am unfamiliar, and I can’t say I have as yet quite absorbed it.

The book ends on a vaguely hopeful note. Not that the grief has in any way disappeared, or has been in any way assuaged. But there appears a hope, expressed as ever in the clearest and most lucid of prose, that perhaps a new stage of life may now be entered. What that stage is, he does not know: he can but guess where the balloon will land. It will go wherever the wind takes it.

And the wind, of course, bloweth where it listeth.

***

Although the prose is simple and elegant, this book is not an easy read. It is certainly not a comfortable read, and neither is it meant to be. There is throughout a dogged determination to refuse all easy solutions, to reject all possible consolation. The rawness of the emotions seems to rub against the quiet and dignified eloquence of the telling, and even the various emblems of ballooning and of aerial photography cannot impart a decorous shape to a theme that is so infinitely large and incomprehensible.

This is an account of an intelligent and reasonable man trying, with predictable lack of success, to understand that which is beyond al understanding. But if the attempt to understand is doomed to failure, one can, at least depict. What is depicted here is an important aspect of our lives – our lives, because while griefs cannot explain each other, they do overlap.

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10 responses to this post.

  1. Barnes is a wonderful writer, I’ve read many of his novels. His bravery in writing without dodge or artifice about his raw unruly grief sort of surprises me. He the consummate stylist, the wry hyper-literary writer-exegete. And yet I understand it, almost feel it and share it. I had a dear friend diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer and watched her initial optimism and hope for a cure leak away slowly and fade until her final days when in response to my encouragement and prayers she held up her hand and said, “Just shut up. Forget it. There is no God. I’m going to die.” You can be sure I did; how do you respond to such words with words regarding the place where no words can go?

    Reply

    • Hello Margaret, and welcome to this blog.

      Barnes’ understated directness, and a certain gentlemanly reticence that we like to think of as “English” (although I do feel that the “English stiff upper lip” is a bit of a myth), are, I think, precisely the qualities needed to approach this subject. This theme of grief is, perhaps, easy to feel and to share, as it is the most powerful of emotions, and none of us can be exempt from it.
      I was drawn to this book because a friend of mine has recently suffered the same bereavement as Barnes has done, in almost identical circumstances. And last summer, another friend had died very suddenly, leaving his widow alone and bewildered. So, not surprisingly perhaps, loss and grief have been very much on my mind of late. (I hope I don’t sound morbid in saying this!)

      I am very sorry to hear about your friend. From what you say, at the end, she had decided against the consolations of religion, and that must clearly be respected. But our uncertainty on these matters surely leaves those left behind at least some room for hope, and I don’t really see why we should be bereaved of this also.

      I am not very well read in contemporary literature, and I think I ought to read a bit more by Julian Barnes. I certainly intend to.

      Best wishes,
      Himadri

      Reply

  2. This sounds like an extraordinary reflection about the human nature, and quite strange coming from a writer I always considered a light-weight. Perhaps I judged Julian Barnes incorrectly.

    Reply

    • Hello Miguel, I confess to not having read much of Barnes (I have read and enjoyed Flaubert’s Parrot – and that’s about it, I think!) but from what I know of his works, he has addressed such big themes as love, death, memory, loss … all big themes: I haven’t, I admit, thought of him as “lightweight”. But of course, it’s not necessarily “big themes” that matter so much as how these themes are dealt with.

      I think I should now read A Sense of an Ending.

      Reply

      • Glad you mentioned A Sense of an Ending, Himadri, because it jogged my memory and forced me to reconsider a kind of evolution I’ve sensed in Barnes’ work. I read this novel and believe me it wasn’t easy although it is quite brief as far as the novel form is concerned, not even 200 pages, if I’m not mistaken, and received rave reviews from the critics. The difficulty I had with it was an unnerving emptiness, dislocation and existential detachment I sensed in the main character, an educated circumspect more or less moral and outwardly respectable contemporary Brit. Something happened to him to him and his coterie of friends while in boarding school that he chews on and which chews on him all his life. Nothing truly horrendous (I won’t spoil the story for you by being more explicit), but a small sequence of events that jarred him and rearranged his fundamental assumptions about people and the possibility of living in a world of ethical and moral certitudes. You might say, actually, it was simply one of those disillusionments all children and youth experience as part of “growing up.” While to all outward appearances this fellow is a fine upstanding socially acceptable specimen of a man of his time, goes about his rounds and duties, marries, has a child, he comes across to me as coldly, pathologically detached from even his most intimate friends and relations–maybe a disfigured attenuated “stiff upper lip” posture? What really put me off, and why I kept putting the book down because I found I wasn’t interested in following this amoral bankrupt to the novel’s last pages, was that it seemed as if the characterization by Barnes was not intentional or ironic or a form of critique of his character’s life and times.

        I may have missed something, I admit; Barnes may have become too sly or subtle for me at this stage of his career. But the anomie, the disconnect with life and the lives of others, I picked up in the character, Barnes seemed to treat lightly, and matter-of -factly. I found it chilling. I could not empathize or care about the character. Now that you’ve brought his book on his grief and bereavement to my attention, I suspect the disoriented dystopia of The Sense of an Ending plays itself out with cruel irony in the author’s own life as he tries to survive the loss of his wife without the reassurance of moral or spiritual referents. However wobbly and compromised such may be in our day and age, the possibility, the hope these things provide are sustaining and essential I think if one is to go forward through the dark and take a chance at least that one will find some light and relief if one only persists.

      • I shall certainly read “A Sense of an Ending”. I am not particularly well read in modern literature, but from the little I have read of Barnes, I do get the impression that his prose is exceptionally cool and detached ansd reticent. I suppose that is to be expected from so intent a Flaubertian. Certainly in Levels of Life, there is – inevitably, given how personal the subject is to the author – great passion beneath the cool exterior. (As there is in Flaubert too, I think.) Whether there is similar passion behind the detachment in Barnes’ other work, or whether the detachment is all there is, I really don’t know, as I’ve only read Flaubert’s Parrot. But after Levels of Life, I am interested in finding out.

  3. Reblogged this on Margaret Langstaff and commented:
    This is a brilliant, stimulating blog for resolutely “literary” book people.

    Reply

  4. If I am understanding it correctly, The surviving grief because we are selfish argument, though I disagree with it, makes some sense to me. If we look at grief as a rejection of life and reality after the loss of another, moving, even partially past, the grief can be viewed as putting that rejection aside, in favor of going on with life. I think that this “moving on” can be seen as doing so for oneself at the “expense” of the loss and our memory of the lost person. I emphasize that this is not my view but it seems logically coherent.

    Reply

    • Hello Brian,
      One thing Julian Barnes is clear about is that he doesn’t regard Time as a healer. He is perhaps right in this. Most of us survive grief in the sense that we continue to live: but we live, I think, with the grief – we don’t “move on” from it. Barnes speaks of grief not occupying a moral space as the effect of grief on him is to put him on the defensive; and it is this defensive posture he thinks of as “selfish”. I find this hard to understand because, when I have experienced grief (from the death of friends, and, some 24 years ago now, the untimely death of my father), I did not feel this way. But as Barnes says, each grief is different; and it does require an effort to enter into other peoples’ minds.
      Cheers for now,
      Himadri

      Reply

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