LEVELS OF LIFE. By Julian Barnes. Knopf. 124 pages. $22.
Julian Barnes published “Nothing to Be Frightened Of,” a wonderful meditation on death, in March 2008. While he insisted that the book was not autobiographical, in “Nothing” Barnes made a record of what it is to be himself, a man whose life’s drama comes from its friction with death: “Death is the one appalling fact that defines life; unless you are constantly aware of it, you can’t begin to understand what life is all about.”
Later that same year, Barnes’s wife, literary agent Pat Kavanaugh, died suddenly, only 37 days after she was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
“How do you write about catastrophe?” he asked in “A History of the World in 10½ Chapters” (2009), and then showed us. “Levels of Life” is Barnes’s saddest and most urgent book, and the one that brings to bear everything he knows about catastrophe and survival.
Here’s how you write about the most panic-inducing catastrophes: start with a seemingly unrelated historical incident, or series of incidents. Let a combination of history and fabulation soften the landing. As Barnes says in the opening sentences of “Levels of Life,” “You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed.”
The first part, titled “The Sin of Height,” is a short, wholly delightful chapter that takes us from the beginnings of balloon flight to the Apollo 8 lunar mission. Barnes focuses on three aeronauts: the British eccentric Fred Burnaby, the French polymath Felix Tournachon (better known as Nadar, the pioneering photographer), and an unlikely third balloon traveler, Sarah Bernhardt.
Nadar’s two passions, flight and photography, were brought together in his attempts to take the world’s first aerial photographs from his airborne wicker cottage. But his passion for modernity wasn’t fulfilled until a century later, with something so newly seen that only a new word could describe it: “Earthrise.”
Of the famous 1968 photograph, the Earth as seen from space, taken by William Anders of Apollo 8, Barnes writes, “To look at ourselves from afar, to make the subjective suddenly objective: this gives us a psychic shock.”
Barnes’s second section, titled “On the Level,” makes the subjective suddenly objective in a different way. Barnes invents a fictional episode that mirrors in miniature his own great loss. “On the Level” imagines that Fred Burnaby and Sarah Bernhardt have a brief love affair. When Bernhardt withdraws herself, Burnaby mourns for years.
Barnes is a playful writer who has long relied on strange links and impertinent connections. The stakes are more personal in “Levels of Life,” but what he had to say about his method in “A History of the World” still applies: “We make up a story to cover the facts we don’t know or can’t accept; we keep a few true facts and spin a new story around them. Our panic and our pain are only eased by soothing fabulation.”
Barnes’s third section, titled “The Loss of Depth,” is a knockout. As a stand-alone piece, it’s heartbreaking. Within the volume, it takes a place among other stories of rising and crashing. The effect is sobering but also magical. Barnes understands, and makes clear, that his hard fall is the flip side of his elevating love. In what becomes a touchstone comment, a widowed friend writes him, “The thing is — nature is so exact, it hurts exactly as much as it is worth, so in a way one relishes the pain, I think. If it didn’t matter, it wouldn’t matter.”
His tough, unsparing look at the hurt of his wife’s death is a tribute to her worth, but we aren’t allowed to know her in this memoir — he never once uses her name. Barnes considered suicide for a second but quickly realized he was his wife’s chief rememberer: “If she was anywhere, she was within me.”
Twice in his first year of grieving, Barnes sees “the opera most immaculately targeted at the grief struck” — “Orfeo ed Euridice.” The story of a bereft man who is able to bargain with the gods brings home another loss to Barnes: for him, the old myths (God, eternal life, any dimension beyond this world) are no longer available. There is no Underworld where his wife waits. He writes, “I don’t believe I shall ever see her again. Never see, hear, touch, embrace, listen to, laugh with. ... I believe dead is dead.”
In these years of sorrow without repeal, Barnes favors the language of plain declaration, this, from a master of wit and wordplay. Every sentence is quotable. Barnes shows us the intertwined beauty and suffering of the world, but he shies away from explanations: “It is all just the universe doing its stuff, and we are the stuff it is being done to.”
Set this brave book on the shelf next to other excellent studies of grief, Joan Didion’s “A Year of Magical Thinking” and Joyce Carol Oates’s “A Widow’s Story.”
Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.