‘Life’ comes together and works as a book


LEVELS OF LIFE, by Julian Barnes. Knopf; 128 pages; $22.95

Julian Barnes begins his new book with the literary equivalent of a three-corner bank shot. It seems too convoluted to work, but if you stick with it long enough, by God the balls begin to fall.

We start with a long disquisition about early aviation pioneers, which segues to a somewhat shorter disquisition about early photography and how it was first utilized to capture aviation, which then segues to an even shorter section about Sarah Bernhardt and one of her lovers. It’s the sort of extensive throat-clearing exercise indulged in by writers at “The New Yorker,” who like to back into their subjects for a page or 40 before actually declaring their intentions.

And then Barnes makes his move: “You put together two things that have not been put together before; and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. … They may crash and burn, or burn and crash. But sometimes, something new is made, and then the world is changed. Together, in that first exaltation, that first roaring sense of uplift, they are greater than their two separate selves. Together, they see further, and they see more clearly.”

And we move smoothly into his actual subject — the death of Barnes’ wife Pat Kavanagh in 2008. One day she was fine. Thirty-seven days later she was dead.

Pat Kavanagh was a literary agent, a beautiful creature, exotic and sharp; among her clients were Tom Wolfe, John Irving, Ruth Rendell, Andrew Motion and Dirk Bogarde. Even though she has been gone for five years, her husband is still clearly a man trying to find his way through dark woods.

Friends try to help and often make things worse. Only one person helps, a woman who lost her husband and wrote Barnes, “it hurts exactly as much as it is worth. … If it didn’t matter, it wouldn’t matter.”

Barnes thinks about suicide, but doesn’t do it, more or less because Kavanagh is now predominantly alive in him, and if he dies then she dies all over again. He is caught in a trap and he knows it, “caught between repeating what you did with her, but without her, and so missing her; or doing new things, things you never did with her, and so missing her differently.”

Checkmate.

“Levels of Life” is fit to be put on the same shelf as “Shadowlands” and other literary studies of grief. Barnes writes that “Every love story is a potential grief story. If not at first, then later. If not for one, then for the other. … So why do we constantly aspire to love? Because love is the meeting point of truth and magic. Truth, as in photography; magic, as in ballooning.”

Or, as C.S. Lewis put it somewhat more succinctly, “The pleasure now for the pain then.”

There are certain books that constitute primal screams — the therapeutic value to the writer takes precedence over their usefulness to anybody else. The loss of a loved one is a universal passage, but the way we experience it is so intensely personal, the chemistry of any relationship so individual, that most books about that loss are valuable mostly because they communicate the not exactly revelatory news that others have felt what you are feeling and survived.

They can be stately or they can be raggedly emotional — Barnes’ book manages to be both. But when the time comes to go through the fire yourself, I don’t know that a book is going to get you through it. Only the process of grieving and the passage of time will do that.

Maybe.


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