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LEVELS OF LIFE by Julian Barnes Kirkus Star

LEVELS OF LIFE

By Julian Barnes

Pub Date: Sept. 26th, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-385-35077-8
Publisher: Knopf

A book about the death of a spouse that is unlike any other—book or spouse—and thus illuminates the singularity as well as the commonality of grieving.

Having provocatively addressed the matter of mortality (Nothing To Be Frightened Of, 2008), the award-winning British novelist brings a different perspective to the death of his wife. There is actually little about his long marriage to literary agent Pat Kavanagh, who was successful, respected and private. “Grief, like death, is banal and unique,” he writes, with the sort of matter-of-fact precision that gives this book its power. In the two early sections, on ballooning, photography and love, Barnes employs an almost mannered, incantatory tone that seems more like a repression of emotion than an expression of it, making readers wonder how these meditations on perspective might ultimately cohere. “You put together two people who have not been put together before; and sometimes the world is changed, sometimes not,” he writes about a doomed love affair between a famous actress and balloon adventurer. “They may crash and burn, or burn and crash. But sometimes, something new is made, and then the world is changed. Together, in that first exaltation, that first roaring sense of uplift, they are greater than their two separate selves.” Just as it took five years for Barnes to address his wife’s death in print, it takes two sections of establishing tone and perspective before he writes of his mourning directly, though of course, he has been writing about it from the start of the book. “I mourn her uncomplicatedly, and absolutely,” he writes. Ultimately, he finds some resonance in opera, which had never interested him before, as he discovers that “song was a more primal means of communication than the spoken word—both higher and deeper.” The perspectives of height and depth tie the first two sections to the third, where love and death can’t ever be resolved but rather, somehow survived.

Barnes’ reticence is as eloquent as it is soul-shuddering.