Levels of Life
by Julian Barnes
Random House, 2013
Early in life, Barnes writes, the world divides crudely into those who have had sex and those who haven’t. Later, into those who have known love, and those who haven’t. Later still — at least, if we are lucky (or, on the other hand, unlucky) — it divides into those who have endured grief, and those who haven’t. These divisions are absolute; they are tropics we cross.
He also writes, “There is the question of loneliness.” Then a few sentences later, “Nothing can compare to the loneliness of the soul in adolescence.”
Together, these quotations seem to beg the question, Is loss of a spouse like a return to adolescent confusion?
Yet, he is unambiguous. Adolescent loneliness is the worst.
Before I address this question, I should say something about the book as a whole. It is slim, a mere 118 pages. A quick read, it is divided into three sections. Ostensibly, it is about grief; specifically, it is about Barnes’ grief for his wife of 30 years who died in 2008, after a 37 day illness. Cancer in the brain.
But to say the book is a memoir would be mistaken. It is part memoir, part essay, part fiction. The three sections are titled: The Sin of Height, On the Level, and The Loss of Depth. Levels of life, as the title says.
The balloon on the cover is another hint. There is a survey of 19th century balloonists, and also 19th century photographers. This is all interesting, well told, precise in description, alert in metaphor, and … all preamble to Barnes’ use of the first person to describe his experiences following the death of his life-partner.
There is the question of grief versus mourning. You can try to differentiate them by saying that grief is a state while mourning is a process; yet they inevitably overlap. Is the state diminishing? Is the process progressing? How to tell? Perhaps it’s easier to think of them metaphorically. Grief is vertical — and vertiginous — while mourning is horizontal.
Me, I like this distinction. Grief has nausea; mourning, sadness.
Let’s get back to the question of adolescence, which Barnes doesn’t develop, but which I would like to push deeper. In my own case, as my wife approached death (and I mean her final months, so there was a period of extended awareness of doom many times longer than Barnes had), I had feeling I hadn’t felt in a long time. When you are living with the awareness of doom, yet trying not to be consumed by doom, you focus on the day-by-day. Watch the flowers grow. Take pleasure in the laundry. The future goes blank. You cannot plan. You cannot take for granted that you will be together six months from now. Maybe not even two months from now. “I’ve been here before,” I told Kate. “I know this feeling. I feel twenty-two again.”
History did not record what she said in response. I don’t remember. I don’t think she said anything. “Do whatever you need to do, honey,” or something along those lines.
The future, then, was blank. Full of possibility, yes, but blank. Lonely, too. One quests for love, to relieve the loneliness. Having found love, one can always lose it. It is part of the marriage contract. One must go first. The marriage contract becomes a caregiver’s contract. I will look after you. I will not abandon you.
Barnes writes, “There were 37 days between diagnosis and death.” In my case, there were 21 months. Grief is not competitive, and I don’t mean to be stern; however, the structure of this book is limiting, where it could be broadening. Barnes is careful to say each grief is specific, each experience is unique, yet the book reaches for general conclusions also. Levels of life.
I was not married for three decades, yet I inherited two step-children (and a new partner in her ex-husband), and the future is blank. Full of possibility. It must be. The children demand it so. As they should.
At one point, near the end of Kate’s life, I was speaking to a psychologist. She asked me how I was doing. I said I was listening someone compulsively to the music I used to listen to when I was 15 years old. I told her that for some reason I felt it important to reconnect with that adolescent. He had the whole world in front of him. He had all of his options open. I needed to live like that, I said. I needed to be ready for anything, and I trusted my 15-year-old self to get me through it. She was disagreeable. “We’ll see how that goes,” she said. I would like to report now, in that regard, things went just fine. I have been horribly, horribly sad, but I survived adolescence, and I’ll survive this. (At least, until I don’t. Time comes for all of us.)
I would have liked to have seen Barnes develop this line of thought (find arguments that contradict his absolutes), yet he is fanciful and metaphoric, an auteur, and, let it be said, brilliant. Earnest to a fault. Besotted with love. A true hero. Bravo.
I saw him once, at the Harbourfront Reading Series in Toronto. Late-1980s I would guess. It was the slightest of connections, yet I bleed for him, having read of his heartbreak. I wish him happiness, and healing laughter.
Keep passing the open windows, Julian. You know what I mean.