Now this is a deceptive opening paragraph. But I’m finding it impossible to find a beginning to do justice, so it will have to do.
For a start, although it is physically slight, it takes you on an incredible journey. And you might conclude from the fact that I read most of the book in just under two hours that maybe I ran out of time, or out of interest. But neither of these is true. I had to stop reading because I was on a train and it made me cry.
And waiting weeks? What’s that all about? Surely if it were worth writing about, I’d have done it sooner. But however long I waited, what I wrote would be inadequate. So I have put it off and put it off.
The book was written by Julian Barnes about the death of his wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh. I knew that before I started, so I was unprepared for the way in which it actually begins, which is with a mini essay about pioneering hot air balloonists. Being a contemporary of Ian McEwan, Barnes must have known that to use the image of a hot air balloon would be an invitation to comparison against one of the most famous and astonishing beginnings of all time: the hot air balloon accident scene of McEwan’s Enduring Love,
(Now I have to confess here that I never actually finished Enduring Love. I was profoundly disappointed that it seemed to slow up so much after such a brilliant beginning in those days. I was quick to judge and give up on books in those days, my early twenties.)
In bold contrast, the opening chapter of Levels of Life is completely different from the tense, attention grabbing beginning to Enduring Love. It’s slow, meandering, full of characters who are delicately and tenuously linked. It’s set in the nineteenth century, is called “The Sin of Height” and includes: a love affair between an actress and an adventurer; the dangers of early ballooning; and discoveries in early photography.
The middle chapter is called “On the Level”. We find out what happened to the actress and the adventurer. We read about heartbreak, which makes us think about the way real life is messy. Unlike the fictional act of desiring someone, which leads to the rush of a happy ending, or the dramatic tragedy of loss, in real life, there is just as likely a mere petering out, a nothingness, a slow ebbing sadness.
Now you are half way through the book. You look again at the opening sentence, which goes: “You put two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed.” You think you have understood. You work out that this book is a metaphor. It is a clever, distant metaphor, about the sadness of a partner’s loss. And then you turn the page and it turns into a different book.
Chapter Three is called “The Loss of Depth” and begins by chronicling in a single paragraph the narrative of Barnes and Kavanagh’s first meeting, their thirty year marriage, and then Kavanagh’s death.
Within pages, it moves away from fact, description, an emotionally tentative description of society’s reaction to grief, towards a precise, angry, tender mapping out of Barnes’ own grief process.
I recognise almost straightaway the pattern of grief. I recognise that we are bad at grief and don’t know what to say. Grief puts you outside society. One evening with friends, Barnes is ignored when he mentions his dead wife’s name, not once, but three times. This never happened to me, but this is when, on the journey up on the train, I first stop reading. I remember the loneliness of being on the outside of society, and I think, we should not be a society where we let people feel like that. But we are.
Barnes examines his feelings towards his wife, towards grief, towards loss, towards memory. He talks about the physicality of the “impact” and “shock” of grief using the metaphor of the ugly rupturing of one’s entire set of internal organs upon hitting the ground after falling from a great height. He moves to talking about recovery, but without any hint of sentimentality, without any sheen of false positivity.
At the end, Barnes talks of the dreams he has of his wife. He talks of the ending of these dreams. And I don’t want to give away the way in which the dreams end, because that is the ending of the book, the conclusion towards which the ideas have been driving.
The end reminded me of something about my husband. When I had his headstone made up, I didn’t proof read it properly. I wasn’t in the right frame of mind. The writing on the stone ended up giving him an extra five days. I used to imagine that we could have those five days back and wonder whereabouts in my life I would put them. They used to revolve around him coming back so that he could see his children at various points. And I would run through these days and imagine what would be in them. But each time I came to the same conclusion. I realised that if I were given the choice, I could not do it. I could not bear the imminence of goodbye again, not for me, not for him. The imminence of goodbye was the worst thing, worse than the pain of afterwards. Imagining having to go through it all again, I just couldn’t do it. And so I was reminded when I read about Barnes’ goodbye.
It’s a sad, peaceful end. Although of course, it is not really the end. Because we know, as we have been told, that this is real life, in which this grief will never really be concluded.