Julian Barnes invites us to visit what he calls a ‘tropic of grief’ that is wilder and bleaker than anything in the pages of Lévi-Strauss’s great memoir. But Barnes does not refuse the word ‘sad’, because, he suggests, one of the first things we should understand about grief is its banality, its need of ordinary old words that may seem flat but will not seem evasive. ‘The griefstruck are not depressed, just properly, appropriately, mathematically … sad.’
Even so, a writer has to do more than glumly name this sadness, and if not evasion, then a certain obliquity is essential to this project, a preparing of the ground, a gathering of strength for the journey, and this is why we don’t arrive all at once at the desolate account of Barnes’s ongoing existence without his wife, unnamed in the book, who died in 2008. You have to read the work to appreciate this delay, and it doesn’t help to have heard of its major topic beforehand. I confess I worried as I read the first pages, with their evocations of balloon journeys, and glanced at the cover with its photograph of Pat Kavanagh at the back, dates of her marriage to Barnes and of her death included. Erratic flight at the start and abrupt death at the end: could this go well? Might it go too well? Wasn’t there something not only artful but arch about the concept of pairing that structures the book? ‘You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed’; ‘You put together two things that have not been put together before; and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t’; ‘You put together two people who have not been put together before … Then, at some point, sooner or later, for this reason or that, one of them is taken away.’ Balloons and photography, flight and fall, height and depth, sky and sewers, town and country, England and France, France and Germany, love and grief, dreams and memory: these are some of the things Barnes puts together around the people that life put together and took apart. So many ‘patterns’, as Barnes says, collisions, coincidences, cancellations. Might not these careful symmetries overwhelm the careless, asymmetrical fact of death? They might but they don’t, and I mention all this because Barnes has risked writing a terrible book in order to write this very good one. The bad book hovers just off the pages, a sort of uncredited collaborator, a reminder that if we don’t want to be original about the banal, we don’t want to be banal about it either. We want to get as close to banality’s truth as words will allow.
The book has three parts. The first is a brief, elegant, mildly speculative account of late 19th-century ballooning experiments, especially those involving Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, also (and better) known as Nadar. He is the man who brought balloons and photography together, and in the autumn of 1858 ‘took the world’s first sky-based photograph’, although no traces of this picture remain ‘except in Nadar’s memory and our subsequent imagination’. He did produce some enduring aerial photographs ten years later, confirming the earlier moment of what Barnes calls ‘cognitive change’, and announcing the view of the Earth captured much later from Apollo 8, a perspective in which our world for Barnes represents not only a newly seen place but its refigured inhabitants: ‘To look at ourselves from afar, to make the subjective suddenly objective: this gives us a psychic shock.’ A precise, if oblique description of what he is trying to do here as a writer. Well, not just trying.
The second part of the book picks up a pairing from the first, converting a coincidence into a love story. Colonel Fred Burnaby of the Royal Horse Guards – if you google him you will see a fine picture of him by Tissot – flew in a balloon from Kent to Normandy in 1882. Four years earlier the actress Sarah Bernhardt had taken a flight from Paris to the Seine-et-Marne. Along with Nadar, these figures and their companions were, Barnes says, ‘the balloon-going classes of the day’. And if Bernhardt was photographed by Nadar in reality, she is courted by Burnaby in Barnes’s fiction. The courtship is casual at first, a matter of curiosity and gallantry. Then Burnaby thinks he may be ‘three-quarters in love’. And very soon he realises he has fallen – the metaphor is inescapable – ‘hook, line and sinker’. Love itself is all rising and falling, Barnes says: ‘We live on the flat, on the level, and yet – and so – we aspire … But when we soar, we can also crash. There are few soft landings … Every love story is a potential grief story.’
The ultimate fall of this fallen man is very subtle, though. He forsakes flight and freedom for the idea of marriage, and Bernhardt will have none of it, much as she likes Burnaby. She is ‘not made for happiness’, she says, but ‘for sensation, for pleasure, for the moment’. Burnaby thought he was a bohemian but he wasn’t; or if he was, ‘she had proved too bohemian for him. And he had failed to understand her explanation of herself.’ Burnaby never gets over his disappointment, although he does marry the ‘daughter of an Irish baronet’. He rejoins the historical record by getting himself killed in the Sudan in 1885.
Nadar put two things together in order to provide us with a new view of ourselves: Barnes has brought Burnaby and Bernhardt together to show how hard it is for people to stay together in space. Burnaby worries constantly about whether Bernhardt is ‘on the level’ – she is French, after all – but of course he himself is up in the air, just not as far up as she is. He crashes from his misreading of their relative heights, and we learn that the difference between her being ‘taken away’ and her taking herself away may not be significant, since away is where she is in either case.
In the third part of the book we are reminded that ‘every love story is a potential grief story,’ but there is no question of the ‘she’ in this story taking herself away. Barnes must want us to think about the stories in the second and third parts of the book together, but for their differences as well as their similarities. The chief similarity is one they also share with the first part: ‘psychic shock’, since a shock is a shock whatever the reason. ‘From a summer to an autumn,’ Barnes writes, ‘there was anxiety, alarm, fear, terror. It was 37 days from diagnosis to death.’ This was his sudden passage through the tropic which divides the world ‘into those who have endured grief, and those who haven’t’. He has powerful and contradictory things to say about grief: that ‘one grief throws no light upon another’; that ‘we grieve in character’; that ‘grief reconfigures time’; that it ‘becomes unimaginable: not just in its length and depth, but its tone and texture, its deceptions and false dawns, its recidivism’; and finally that we can’t overcome it, only understand that it ‘has moved elsewhere, shifted its interest’.
All but one of these claims feel substantively true. The first must be wrong, or we wouldn’t get anything out of this book, and Barnes wouldn’t be writing it. Even so, the phrase as it stands suggests a couple of supplementary truths: that we can’t learn directly from another’s grief, and that grief itself doesn’t teach us anything. It’s thinking about grief that does the teaching and if grief drives the thinking, it’s the thinking that creates the prose.
Certainly grief cries out to us in eloquent terms:
I do not believe I shall ever see her again. Never see, hear, touch, embrace, listen to, laugh with; never again wait for her footstep, smile at the sound of an opening door, fit her body into mine, mine into hers. Nor do I believe we shall meet in some dematerialised form. I believe dead is dead …
I remember, sharply, last things. The last book she read. The last play (and film, and concert, and opera, and art exhibition) that we went to together. The last wine she drank, the last clothes she bought. The last weekend away. The last bed we slept in that wasn’t ours. The last this, the last that. The last piece of my writing that made her laugh. The last words she wrote herself; the last time she signed her name. The last piece of music I played her when she came home. Her last complete sentence. Her last spoken word.
We need to understand the intensity of this emotion, or get as close as we can to understanding it, in order to see what Barnes is asking his writing to do. Or what thinking can do for grief. He redefines sadness, for example. He needs the ordinary word because he doesn’t want an extraordinary one, but then he wants to evoke the recurring strangeness of his condition as well as its banality. It is sad but not ‘straightforwardly sad’ because ‘there is a grotesquerie to grief as well. You lose the sense of your existence being rational, or justifiable.’ You even – and this strikes an old theme of Barnes’s – lose the sense of being English. And it is in this loss of reason and nation that grief, paradoxically, ceases to be unique to the individual griever and becomes comparable. That is what the structure of Barnes’s book suggests: that stories talk to each other, that we can think about the most particular, private feelings in relation to other feelings. Writers find patterns, as I have already said, and especially where there aren’t or can’t be patterns. That is their job:
Perhaps grief, which destroys all patterns, destroys even more: the belief that any pattern exists. But we cannot, I think, survive without such belief. So each of us must pretend to find, or re-erect, a pattern. Writers believe in the patterns their words make, which they hope and trust add up to ideas, to stories, to truths. This is always their salvation, whether griefless or griefstruck.
This is what William Empson called learning a style from a despair, and what is moving here is not the argument or even the insistence on survival and salvation, but the intricate fallacy at work in the sequence of thought. Grief destroys belief; we accept this destruction, and build something we can pretend to believe in; then we forget we were pretending and believe in what we have built. Grief’s work is undone and we are saved. And if we are not grieving, we are still saved. The fallacy is moving because it accidentally or casually does what it’s not supposed to be able to do: it perfectly expresses not an order but a need for order.
The elaborate metaphorical system of Levels of Life represents this fictional order, even in the verbal symmetry of the names of the parts: ‘The Sin of Height’, ‘The Loss of Depth’, with ‘On the Level’ in the middle. The story of Icarus in the first part matches the story of Orpheus in the last; images of flying and crashing are everywhere, often twinkling a bit too brilliantly with relevance. But all this balance is precarious, it can’t forget what it is designed to deny, and the book contains a very persuasive indication of the persistence of grief’s mess amid the drive for elegance. This is the set of puns, sometimes cruel, sometimes eagerly tasteless, that also litters the book. Language, in the context of balloon flight, ‘sounds high-flown, over-inflated’; Burnaby the ballooner feels ‘deflated’ when he loses track of his conversation with Bernhardt; Barnes thinks that the idea of finding happiness on one’s own is ‘an implausible contraption that will never get off the ground’. He tells us he often thought of suicide as a way out of his grief, and he had a ‘preferred method – a hot bath, a glass of wine next to the taps, and an exceptionally sharp Japanese carving knife’. Then he says that thinking about this kind of thing ‘can cut both ways’. Singing in opera is ‘both higher and deeper’ than the spoken word, because ‘opera cuts to the chase’. In this context when people say, ‘I thought you’d be over it by now,’ they are unwittingly plugging themselves into the aerial lexicon of the book, their ‘over’ meaning ‘past’ turning automatically into ‘over’ meaning ‘above’. And in the grossest of these harsh, insistent jokes, Barnes returns to his thoughts of suicide and recalls having the thought that ‘if I cannot hack it without her, I will hack at myself instead.’ When a writer of Barnes’s grace and discretion commits such a graceless stylistic act, we have to wonder what’s happening.
We don’t have to wonder for long. These excesses of metaphor, these overworkings or literalisations of idioms, destroy patterns in language just as surely as grief destroys the notion of pattern in life. But they destroy them by mimicking them, by being travesties of pattern in themselves. In so doing they salute Barnes’s more formal, more earnestly meant patterns from a distance, acknowledge the need they are supposed to meet, and evoke a stubborn disarray that refuses all elegance, and can subvert even the engines of order to its purpose. Cutting to the chase always cuts both ways; no amount of hacking will terminally hack it.