The Art of Losing
Levels of Life
Alfred A. Knopf
Julian Barnes’ memoir Levels of Life at first seems to stray far from its purported subject: the author’s grief over the loss of his late wife, Pat Kavanagh. Two-thirds of the work is devoted to a detailed account of ballooning in late nineteenth-century France, the first aerial photographs taken by Gaspard-Félix Tournachon (aka “Nadar”) and an unlikely romance between a bohemian French actress and a British colonel.
What’s the connection to Barnes’ life, and specifically to his grief? It seems tangential at best, until we realize that Barnes is inviting us to view these anecdotes as coded metaphors for his loss. “The yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity,” explains the narrator of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, “the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut.” But, as the narrator of Conrad’s work goes on to describe, there’s an entirely different kind of narrative whose meaning “is not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out […] in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.”
Levels of Life is a narrative of the latter sort. The true meaning and purpose of this work’s historical anecdotes are not the actual facts they relate, but rather the enveloping story of Barnes’ private loss toward which these stories point us.
For example, the title of the first chapter—“The Sin of Height”—casts a dark shadow over the accounts of early balloon flights and already evokes something more than the purely historical. We can’t help but think of Icarus, and how his triumphant flight led to an equally spectacular plunge into the depths. “But when we soar, we can also crash,” writes Barnes, intimating his own cataclysmic plunge. “There are few soft landings.” These kinds of loaded comments signal that Barnes is talking about his grief even when he’s recounting seemingly unrelated details. The story of the author’s loss haunts these historical anecdotes like one of Conrad’s hazy coronas, barely visible but still palpably present.
There’s a centripetal motion to Barnes’ prose: As the memoir progresses, it circles ever more closely around his inconsolable grief. By the time we reach the third and final chapter, the author dispenses with the historical anecdotes and addresses his grief head-on. “I knew soon enough my preferred method—,” writes Barnes, describing his contemplation of suicide, “a hot bath, a glass of wine next to the taps, and an exceptionally sharp Japanese carving knife.”
Barnes also takes a sledgehammer to the tired platitudes often uttered to the grief-stricken, such as “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” Quite the contrary, argues Barnes: “There are many things that fail to kill us but weaken us for ever. Ask anyone who deals with victims of torture. Ask rape counsellors and those who handle domestic violence. Look around at those emotionally damaged by mere ordinary life.”
This final chapter of Levels of Life repeatedly reminds us that the burden of grief is not just the loss of a loved one, but also the loss of many of the illusions that sustained us in better days. Grief shatters all frames of reference and leaves us groping in undifferentiated darkness. We are left with only memories, and even these are chimerical, unreliable. “Binocular memory has become monocular,” writes Barnes. “There is no longer the possibility of assembling from two uncertain memories of the same event a surer, single one, by triangulation, by aerial surveying.”
But the memoir itself succeeds in this act of triangulation by combining the raw, direct account of Barnes’ grief with the much subtler commentary on love and loss in the initial two chapters. A New York Times review of Levels of Life laments that Barnes didn’t pare down his memoir to include only the 56 pages of the final chapter. But the initial chapters are essential precisely because they intimate Barnes’ grief rather than casting a glaring spotlight on it. The anecdotes on the history of ballooning and early photography are lenses through which we can view the author’s loss from a distance, triangulated through other lives and other times. This lends a dimension and reach to Barnes’ grief that it wouldn’t have otherwise.
Barnes repeatedly implies that the dark heart of grief defies the structure and order of language. And yet, the paradox is that Barnes uses words to illuminate experiences that lie beyond words—the searing despair of acute loss, the memory of a face we’ll never see again and the slow degrees by which we find a way to go on living.
Christopher C. Guider holds a Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature and has published numerous articles on the relationship between memory, place and photography in twentieth-century works of literature.