Levels of Life
Along with its kissing cousin, love, grief as a subject is a staple in fiction, poetry and essays. Maudlin, confessional and sentimental screeds fill bookshelves and consume gigabytes. Yet as Julian Barnes demonstrates in this short but potent book, sometimes coming at a subject sideways exposes penetrating insights that are lost when the light and the words are too direct.
Barnes begins in the 19th-century air, with a brief history of ballooning, in a section called “The Sin of Height.” Pioneers like the Frenchman Gaspard-Felix Tournachon, aka Nadar, and the Englishman Captain Fred Burnaby braved the caprices of wind and weather and fire to glimpse and, in Nadar’s case, to photograph our world from the air. Futurists of that time looked forward to a “heavier-than-air” machine that would not be subject to the vagaries of wind and therefore would be a reliable workhorse on this new plane. “Height was moral, height was spiritual. Height, some thought, was even political: Victor Hugo believed, quite simply, that heavier-than-air flight would lead to democracy.... This sounds high-flown, overinflated. And aeronautics did not lead to democracy, unless budget airlines count.”
"It’s clear that Barnes loved his wife wholeheartedly, and one hopes that writing this book gave him some comfort. Regardless, his spare considerations of grief move us all the more for their honesty, intelligence and delicacy."
As Barnes imagines it in the second section, Fred Burnaby’s vivid affair with actress and fellow “balloonatic” Sarah Bernhardt brings the Englishman down to earth. “We live on the flat, on the level, and yet --- and so --- we aspire. Groundlings, we can sometimes reach as far as the gods. Some soar with art, others with religion; most with love. But when we soar, we also crash.” Burnaby, a veteran of many wars and skirmishes, is brought low by the daring and glamorous Bernhardt, a woman so thin she claimed that she “slipped between raindrops without getting wet.” This section, called “On The Level,” documents that elastic yet permanent connection between love and grief, as Burnaby progresses to a marriage proposal, and is dashed by Bernhardt’s refusal. Bernhardt eschews safety and certainty. She prefers the danger and adventure of being blown by the wind to the certainty and efficiency of some engine-propelled heavier-than-air machine with controlled ascents and descents.
Not until the last section, titled “The Loss of Depth,” does Barnes turn his pen toward his own grief at the sudden loss of his wife. In precise, unadorned language, he presents some of the facts. “It was thirty-seven days from diagnosis to death. I tried never to look away, always to face it; and a kind of crazy lucidity resulted.” Building on the metaphors of the first two sections, he wonders at our aspirations for height and safety. “In this new-found-land there is no hierarchy, except that of feeling of pain. Who has fallen from the greater height, who has spilt more organs on the ground?” He applies his excellent mind to the common banalities trotted out for the grieving.
An acquaintance writes to reassure him that one does survive the grief to emerge a stronger and better person. “This struck me as outrageous and self-praising (as well as too quickly decided.) How could I possibly be a better person without her than with her? Later, I thought: but he is just echoing Nietzsche’s line about what doesn’t kill us making us stronger. And as it happens, I have long considered this epigram particularly specious. There are many things that fail to kill us but weaken us forever.”
It’s clear that Barnes loved his wife wholeheartedly, and one hopes that writing this book gave him some comfort. Regardless, his spare considerations of grief move us all the more for their honesty, intelligence and delicacy.
Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman Nicol on October 4, 2013