Friday, January 10, 2014

Levels of Life, by Julian Barnes

Levels of Life is a collection of three essays (or perhaps the first two might better be called stories--just the first of many questions about the book I can't resolve). The first section of the book, "The Sin of Height," begins with the following lines: "You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed." Because we know that the book is, at least partially, about the death of the author's beloved wife, we think these lines signal that what follows will be a metaphor for their lives together. But the metaphor is not easy to grasp, as this essay/story/whatever is an account of ballooning and the development of aerial photography in the late 19th century.

The second section of the book, "On the Level," is the story of a brief love affair between two of the ballooniacs, Colonel Fred Burnaby and the actress Sarah Bernhardt. Again, it seems that Barnes must intend this story metaphorically but, I find myself agreeing with Burnaby, who realizes "metaphor often confused him."

The final section of the book, "The Loss of Depth," is a heart-rending account of Barnes's grief following his wife's death. It is an unvarnished and beautifully written memoir of pain, anger, and love. Perhaps, at around 50 pages, it did not justify publication on its own. Yet, for this metaphorically challenged reader, this essay was not enhanced by the inclusion of the more fanciful pieces.

"The Loss of Depth" is well worth reading--and some less literal or savvier readers may find it enhanced by "The Sin of Height" and "On the Level."

Favorite passages:
Grief reconfigures time, its length, its texture, its function: one day means no more than the next, so why have they been picked out and given separate names? It also reconfigures space. You have entered a new geography, mapped by a new cartography.

This is what those who haven't crossed the tropic of grief do not understand: the fact that someone is dead may may mean that they are not alive, but doesn't mean that they do not exist.

Pain shows that you have not forgotten; pain enhances the flavour of memory; pain is a proof of love.

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