No common grief in “Levels of Life”

In 2011, Julian Barnes won the Man Booker Prize for “The Sense of an Ending.”  It was the first novel he had published since his wife’s death. Only 150 pages long, it is an exercise in brevity and restraint. In part one, the narrator, Tony, retired and unmarried, recounts a singular event in his past: the suicide of his estranged friend Adrian. Together with two other boys, they had made up a group of precocious primary-school youths. Of the four, Adrian was marked by his intellectualism, and when they graduated, Tony went to Bristol, Adrian to Cambridge. They exchanged correspondence and met intermittently, until Tony lost a girlfriend, Veronica, to Adrian in his final year of university. Several months later, he was notified of Adrian’s suicide. In the novel’s second half, set in the present-day, Tony receives a letter informing him that Veronica’s mother has bequeathed to him a sum of money and several letters, leading him to contact Veronica and reflect on his memory of the events. The book is beautifully constructed, but cold. What humor there is is coolly calculated, and the ending is enigmatic, fatalistic in the way frame narratives so often are. Even at its lightest moments the novel hums with a kind of futility.

Barnes’s latest book, “Levels of Life,” something of a meditation on grief in three parts, perhaps accounts for his last novel’s fatalism. A reflection on the loss, or rather, death, of Barnes’ spouse, the book is a sobering read, one leavened slightly by the first two buoyant segments; Barnes himself does not appear until part three. Part one, “The Sins of Height,” is a panoramic look at the 19th century fascination with ballooning and a whirlwind sampling of the dilettantes the pursuit attracted. Of particular interest here is Felix Tournachon, rechristened Tournadar, and then simply Nadar, the founder of aerial photography and a neglected pioneer whose innovations would ultimate over a century later in the astronaut William Anders’s photographic capture of the “Earthrise.” Part two, “On the Level,” imagines a courtship between two characters who appear in section one, Sarah Bernhardt, French actress, and Fred Burnaby, English sergeant, then colonel, finally a major who takes a Madhi’s spear to the neck. The sergeant considers himself a tether-less bohemian, but falls for Sarah; it is Sarah who proves the real bohemian and Fred must admit that, “in life, you might be a bohemian and an adventurer, but you also sought a pattern, an arrangement to help you through, even if — even as — you kicked against it.” He marries an English girl and is killed in the service of his Queen. Finally, in part three, “The Loss of Depth,” we move, or perhaps descend, from the saccharine past to the sobering present; Barnes appears and speaks candidly of his grief.

With large margins and a generous number of paragraph breaks, the book proceeds at a brisk clip. The first two narratives are separated into crisp paragraphs that, under no obligation to plumb the depths of their subjects, pop with the poetic license afforded by summary and breadth. While poignant, they amount to literary-historical bon mots, mood pieces that resonate metaphorically throughout the text. They are a joy to read, but we do so with trepidation: their summary tone makes clear that this is not a book about ballooning or the courtship of a French actress, and in section three, these featherweight poetics give way to paragraphs like this:

“For many years I would occasionally think of an account I read by a woman novelist about the death of her older husband. Amid her grief she admitted there was a small inner voice of truth murmuring to her, “I’m free.” I remembered this when my own time came…but no such voice was heard, no such words. One grief throws no light on another.”

“The Loss of Depth” comprises a number of observations of this sort: on death’s euphemisms (‘“I’m sorry to hear your wife has passed’ (as in ‘passed water’?‘passed blood’?)”), the fallacy that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and the nature of grief now that we’ve killed God, and with him, the afterlife. For the most part, these tight paragraphs float free of any petty ballast, buoyed by concision and a certain poetic “rightness.” Some, though, are heavier-than-air vessels, kept aloft only by the weight of Barnes’s project, as when his atheism surfaces, and the tone shifts from melancholic to nihilistically cantankerous, even petulant. Still, in a sense, even the book’s failings are in keeping with his project. If no grief sheds light on another, this holds true for “Levels of Life.” Barnes can tell us of his sudden new-found love for the Opera, his realization that all the shouting is supremely natural, an excision of life’s petty formalities, and we can empathize with this escape from pain into the unreal, but we can’t really know it. No matter how articulate he is, and Barnes is nothing if not articulate, as readers, we always feel one step removed. Not because we haven’t suffered ourselves; I imagine many readers have weathered similar, perhaps the very same, life-inverting tragedies. What Barnes demonstrates is the impossibility of being united by a common grief; the very idea that grief could be “common!” At its best and worst, “Levels of Life,” like all our expressions of grief, is no more than a collection of words. It is a truly sad book for just this reason, because Barnes so nearly communicates the incommunicable grief of tragedy, a grief that neither kills you, nor makes you stronger, a grief that simply leaves you less then you were. It must be said though, that he does communicate the possibility of something after. Like Adrian, Barnes entertained the one truly serious philosophical problem. Thankfully, unlike Adrian, Barnes has chosen life, and, I hope, to continue to write for some time to come.