Levels of Life
By Julian Barnes
In 2008, Knopf published Julian Barnes’s Nothing to Be Frightened Of, an essay-cum-memoir that distills more entertainment from the terrifying finality of death than you’d think feasible. Erudite and insightful, it’s a marathon exercise in gallows humor. Extinction is meaningless, terrifying, and absolute, Barnes repeatedly insists, and miraculously he encourages the reader to stick around to hear more. In Barnes’s philosophy, there is no coming to terms with death; all we can do is hold hands and distract one another with talk and laughter until the inevitable arrives. Sadly, he didn’t have a hand to hold for much longer. Around the time the first reviews were published, his wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh, died unexpectedly. They had been married for 29 years.
This is the background to Barnes’s new book, Levels of Life, here and there described as a “grief memoir.” It sounds like snuff entertainment for people with graduate degrees, but then it’s a problematic type of writing. Barnes himself said as much in his review of Joyce Carol Oates’s 2011 contribution to the genre, A Widow’s Story. “In some ways, autobiographical accounts of grief are unfalsifiable,” he wrote in the New York Review of Books, “and therefore unreviewable by any normal criteria.” The rawness of grief forces readers to approach these books as evidence rather than art, and if critical faculties are muted then the potential for pleasure is, too.
The other big problem is the perennial one for the memoirist, a difficulty best described by Flaubert in another context: “in the midst of the most intimate confidences, false shame, delicacy, or pity always impose a certain reticence.” We’re not always full of shit, but we’re never quite empty of it either. Oates set out to chronicle the 12 months following her husband’s death in February 2008, but A Widow’s Story makes no mention of the man she met in the fall of the same year, and who in March 2009 became her second husband. No matter how many warts and scars are on display, a memoir is always the portrait the author wanted. The impossibility of absolute frankness is the cue for fiction to enter stage left. In fiction, things slip out that an author might have rather kept hidden.
The first half of Levels of Life is a short story about a love affair between two historical characters from the late 19th century, the French actress Sarah Bernhardt and bluff English officer Fred Burnaby. Burnaby is a ballooning enthusiast, a “balloonatic,” and his aerial adventures provide this short book (only 124 generously set pages) with a fund of metaphor for life’s ups, downs, and midair conflagrations. Burnaby and Bernhardt make a charming ill-matched pair, and their gentle amour pulls the reader into a position of trust. Once everything’s cozy, the floorshow begins in the second half, which is the memoir. Here Barnes spills his guts about the horrors of grief in a series of compelling anecdotes and heart-rending aperçus, thrown into relief by the fiction. The result of this bait-and-switch is harrowing and engrossing. It’s also a concise demonstration of the limits of autobiography and the importance of making stuff up.