‘You put together two things that have not been put together before and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.’ In this slim book Julian Barnes puts not two but three things together: nonfiction, fiction and memoir. And sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
The first section is an elegant and breezy account of the early days of ballooning and the development of aerial photography. Here are the adventurer Colonel Frederick Burnaby, the actress Sarah Bernhardt, and the photographer Félix Tournachon (otherwise known as Nadar): ‘The enthusiastic English amateur, the most famous actress of her era, making a celebrity flight, and the professional balloonist’.
Barnes’s second section is a fictional or, at least, conjectural account of the love-affair between Burnaby and Bernhardt — one that left him stricken when he proposed marriage and she rejected him. She said often that she loved him, but would not promise that she would always do so. ‘Shot dead, that was how he felt.’
The third section is an extraordinarily direct and moving autobiographical essay about Barnes’s grief for his wife, Pat Kavanagh. They were married in 1979. In 2008 she was diagnosed with brain cancer and 37 days later she died. She was (in a chiasmus that, to my ear, uses its slickness to encapsulate, as much as to express, the emotion): ‘The heart of my life; the life of my heart.’
The unavoidable question is: how do the first two things (and literary genres) relate to the third? It’s a piece of writing about perspective, of course — about what you can see from the heights and the depths that you cannot see on the level — but the metaphor soon becomes muddy. And metaphor — as an instance of the writer’s trick of making patterns — is, as Barnes acknowledges, of only limited use in a process that is patternless, meaningless and exactly particular to the person undergoing it. He observes the universe ‘just doing its stuff’; ‘life merely continuing until it merely ends’.
The first and second sections, to me, read like … not quite a throat-clearing, but a way of circling towards the main event, of framing it, of giving it somewhere outside Barnes’s own life to anchor. I catch myself qualifying these judgments with phrases like ‘to me’ or ‘to my ear’. There’s a trace of the hesitancy a reviewer feels towards such obviously personal material, but it also seems to reflect something in the book itself. Levels of Life is much more hermetic than it at first appears. You find yourself hazarding guesses at things because — again, to hazard a guess — not all the material you need to decode this book is available to the reader.
We’re invited by its structure to seek some correspondence — a richer one than the notions of flying and falling to earth; a writer of Barnes’s powers doesn’t need to spend half a book teeing up a metaphor — between Burnaby’s relationship with Bernhardt and Barnes’s with his wife. Did Barnes’s imagined or reconstructed Bernhardt — emotionally honest, captivating, alive in the moment, unavailable to the simple monogamy Burnaby offered her —rhyme with his understanding of his wife? Was Burnaby’s grief for the end of their affair related to Barnes’s grief for the end of his marriage? You can guess. But you can’t know. The key you need to decode Levels of Life is Pat Kavanagh, and she isn’t there.
So this is an odd memoir: it is emotionally self-exposing (there’ll be no shortage of ‘searingly honest’ quotes to put on the paperback) but on another level very private. You learn almost nothing from it about Pat (she’s not even named in the text), or about their relationship. The book is not an attempt to bring her to life. It describes and enacts her absence.
It is the more piercing for Barnes’s refusal to sentimentalise himself or others. He levelly reports what he felt, how he thought, what he feels now, what he thinks now. He doesn’t prettify things to spare feelings. There’s a lot of anger, here: towards friends
for their inability to say or do the right things, for their unwanted pressingness or seeming froideur. And since the grief-struck rarely know what they need or want, only what they don’t, offence-giving and offence-taking are common.
You feel — well, almost feel — for the woman who will recognise herself in the following:
Someone suggested I rent a flat in Paris for six months or, failing that, ‘a beach cabin in Guadeloupe’. She and her husband would look after my house while I was away. This would be convenient for them, and ‘we’d have a garden for Freddie’. The proposal came by email during the last day of my wife’s life. And Freddie was their dog.
For all Barnes’s tools of detachment and self-analysis, this is a force-ten account of the ongoing pain of having loved entirely and lost entirely. It reads like what it is: a book with its heart missing.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 13 April 2013