Books

On the Other Side of the Divide: A Review of Julian Barnes’s Levels of Life

When I am feeling bad, I like consuming things that will make me feel worse. It’s cathartic and reinforces my worldview, which is essentially that most people/things are terrible and that no one has any control over anything.

I have always felt like this, and have long been drawn to stories about loss even when I had never experienced the shock of anyone very close to me dying. The thought of unexpectedly losing someone I loved was unimaginably horrifying, and if I was struggling through a break-up or just feeling lonely and aimless, it was comforting to immerse myself in the life of someone trying to make it through something much harder. If you want to convince me to read something, just tell me that it will destroy me emotionally or guarantee that it will make me cry. My favorite pieces of writing include Amy Hempel’s short story “The Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried,” about a woman visiting her terminally ill friend in the hospital; Jo Ann Beard’s essay, “The Fourth State of Matter,” about working at the University of Iowa during the 1991 mass shooting; and Carole Maso’s novel The Art Lover, about a woman coping with the death of both her parents and the discovery that her friend is dying from AIDS.

In February of last year, my mother died. She was fifty-eight years old. I was twenty-eight, and we had been mostly estranged for over a decade. Although she had suffered from a variety of health problems throughout her life, this was unexpected. She was admitted to the hospital for pneumonia, placed on life support, and was dead in six weeks. Less than two months later my grandmother died.

For the first time I encountered the kind of loss I had previously only read about. I avoided individual narratives about grief, choosing instead to focus on large-scale historical atrocities. I watched all nine hours of the Holocaust documentary Shoah on YouTube and read King Leopold’s Ghost, about the Belgian occupation of the Congo that resulted in the death of millions of Africans. The overwhelming horror of these events put my losses into perspective and confirmed my new understanding of the world as an even bleaker place than I had imagined.

Levels of Life is about the death of Julian Barnes’s wife. They were together for thirty years. It is also about the actress Sarah Bernhardt, hot air ballooning, and 19th century photography. Some critics have suggested that the two sections of the book concerning these latter subjects could have been dispensed with entirely, leaving the last fifty-six pages—which are strictly about Barnes’s wife—to stand on their own. I can understand this. The three parts are so loosely tied together that I got the impression the first two were written more for the benefit of the author than the reader. It’s as though using hot air ballooning as a metaphor for taking risks in love and life, and imagining a courtship between Bernhardt and a soldier named Fred Burnaby, gave Barnes the context he needed to explore his own sorrow in a way that didn’t feel too raw or self-indulgent, even if the connections between all these things don’t entirely come across. Regardless of the book’s odd structure, the cumulative effect is so wrenching I can’t argue for it being written any other way. The emotional stakes of each section build on each other, and by the time I finished reading about Bernhardt and Burnaby’s beautiful but doomed relationship, my heart felt warmed up to receive the emotional wallop Barnes delivers in the final third.

In recalling a confession he read by a novelist that a small part of her felt freed after her husband’s death, Barnes writes, “One grief throws no light upon another.” In one respect it seems clear that even though Barnes might believe this to be true in some cases, he knows it can’t be applied universally. Otherwise why would he feel the urge to share his own grief by writing a book about it? That said, he has a point. As devastated as I was last year, I read Barnes’s account knowing I still can’t imagine what it would be like to lose someone so much a part of your everyday life for longer than I’ve been alive. Dealing with my mother’s death also made me truly understand the emotional limits of art for the first time. How the saddest movie or most tragic novel can at best only gesture at the overwhelming despair that comes with losing someone who was so much a part of you. It is the kind of despair that leaves you keening like an animal in your apartment, or in Barnes’s case, quietly contemplating suicide. These are feelings I never knew existed, and there’s something mind-bending about first discovering your capacity for emotional pain. It’s like diving into a lake that you thought you knew the depth of and finding yourself in the middle of something black and vast, populated by fish with sharp teeth and lights hanging from their heads, the bottom impossible to find.

No matter how hard you try to brace yourself, nothing can prepare you for what this will be like. Barnes was no stranger to death by the time his wife died. In 2009 he published a book titled Nothing to Be Frightened Of. It is essentially a 250-page essay about facing one’s mortality as an agnostic. I started reading it in preparation for writing about Levels of Life, and even though it’s sprinkled with a healthy dose of humor, I found it hard to get through and gave up after 150 pages. Most of the book is spent examining death from a detached, philosophical perspective, and even when he writes about his parents dying Barnes betrays little emotion. In contrast, Barnes’s writing about his wife in Levels of Life is almost entirely an exploration of the new feelings he’s now faced with. He does not explain what his wife died from or even give her name. There is no recounting when they met or how they fell in love. All we are told is that, “It was thirty-seven days from diagnosis to death.” This lack of details might make Levels of Life seem as alienating and impersonal as Barnes’s previous book about death, but for me it had the opposite effect. In many ways each person’s grief is as unique as the loved one who has died. However, it is also an emotional and physical experience with elements that most people who have gone through it can recognize. Barnes writes with such precision and honesty about this process that I found myself able to identify with him completely despite the differences in our relationships with the people we lost.

This kind of sudden, unexpected loss rearranges the way a person relates to the world in a way that goes beyond experiencing a familiar emotion at its extreme. In the six weeks my mother was in the ICU, I tried to anticipate what it would be like if she never recovered. I thought about the saddest I had ever been and imagined it would feel like that, only amplified. But as Barnes writes, “Perhaps grief, which destroys all patterns, destroys even more: the belief that such patterns exist.” Beyond feeling devastated, you’re also left with the knowledge that any terrible thing really can happen at any moment. At the same time my mother was in the hospital, my grandmother was at the end of a year-and-a-half-long struggle to fight off a debilitating staph infection. I called her the night I found out my mother wasn’t going to make it and told her she had to get better. We spoke almost every day, and I knew I couldn’t handle it if something happened to her too. I demanded that she be okay. Well, she wasn’t okay, and I found a way to handle it. What else can you do? It turns out life doesn’t actually set limits on the things you’ll have to endure. Even for a lifelong pessimist, being forced to understand this concept in a way that is no longer abstract is jarring.

Barnes writes, “Early in life, the world divides us crudely into those who have had sex and those who haven’t. Later, into those who have known love, and those who haven’t. Later still—at least, if we are lucky (or, on the other hand, unlucky)—it divides us into those who have endured grief, and those who haven’t. These divisions are absolute; they are tropics we don’t cross.” It is, predictably, a different experience reading a book about loss as someone on Barnes’s side of the divide. While I would have found his story heartbreaking at any point in my life, there’s a new kind of comfort in reading something to gain a sense of recognition rather than perspective. Grief is isolating. It’s learning to live without someone part of you believed you could never live without; it’s learning to do the impossible. I live with the effects of my mother and grandmother’s deaths, but most of the time it’s still too much to think about them. My apartment contains several boxes of my mother’s things pushed into corners and hidden in closets. I haven’t opened them since I brought them home. I also have never opened the small plastic container that holds a portion of her ashes. Levels of Life doesn’t offer any answers or advice, but sometimes you don’t want to hear that things will get better. It’s enough just to know that even in this most personal and solitary endeavor, you’re not entirely alone.

Sarah Bridgins is a writer and performer living in Brooklyn. Her poems have appeared in MonkeyBicycle, InDigest, Sink Review, Two Serious Ladies, and NAP, among other journals. Her chapbook “We Are Not Pilgrims” was recently published by Mondo Bummer, and her book reviews and interviews have been featured in Bookslut, The Rumpus, and the NY Daily News’s Page Views blog. You can find more of her writing at: http://sarahbridgins.blogspot.com/.