Book Review – Levels of Life by Julian Barnes

Book Review – Levels of Life by Julian Barnes

One of the great good fortunes of my life is that I have never been visited by great loss or grief, but having been a proximal observer many times (and increasingly often as the years progress) it often seems to me that my rope must soon run out.

This slim memoir (117 pages), published in 2013, takes on the subject of grief and mourning with such surgical precision (and from the vantage point of the closest of personal circumstance) that I will surely return to this book as a guide and hip flask if and when I am similarly struck down.

Julian Barnes married the literary agent Pat Kavanagh (originally South African) in 1978 and remained happily and deeply committed to her for 32 years until she died very suddenly in 2010. He does not get into the details of her death; we find out only that there were mere weeks between the discovery of her medical pathology to her final moment. The book is not about the process of her dying, it is about the overwhelming (and impossible) task of accepting, wrestling and understanding the grief that accompanies a loss of a loved one. It is at once wrenching and panoramic, and in the hands of Barnes’s elegant and unwavering language, even more so, sometimes to the point of the reader having to stop mid-sentence to look away, as if from terrible car wreck.

First two thirds of this books are about other matters – ballooning in the late 18th century, early photography, Sarah Bernhardt and a specific love affair with one English gentlemen named Thomas Burnaby. As interesting and skilfully described as these historical events are, their tether to the death of Ms Kavanagh and Barnes’s descent into its aftermath are not evident until the last part of the book, where he launches directly into her death and his emotional drowning in the wake of it. It is described in finely-grained intellectual and emotional minutiae, and carried by the sort of language mastery for which Barnes is acclaimed.

This is naked microscopic introspection at its most brutal, its pain hard to witness, its eloquence soaring and melancholic. I can really only recommend this book for anyone who has encountered loss and grief, or like myself, has escaped it and wishes some to archive some wisdom for when it arrives.