Much of Julian Barnes’s early work is lighthearted and playful (the protagonist in Flaubert’s Parrot attempts to track down the stuffed parrot that sat atop the writing desk; the opening chapter in A History of the World in 10½ Chapters is narrated by a woodworm, a stowaway on Noah’s ark); his recent books have addressed more sombre themes (Nothing to Be Frightened Of, published in 2008, was “a meditation on mortality and the fear of death”).
The heart of Barnes’s latest book, Levels of Life (Random House Canada), is a brief memoir: an examination of grief and loss, written five years after the death from cancer of his wife and partner of thirty years, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh. Levels of Life is composed of three parts—an essay on the early days of ballooning, a short story and the memoir—which at first appear to have little in common.
Barnes links the three pieces together with variations on the idea that “when you put two things together that have not been put together before, the world is changed.” This seems like a tenuous hook on which to hang an entire book; and yet it works. “You put together two people who have not been put together before… and something new is made, and the world is changed. Then, at some point, sooner or later, for this reason or that, one of them is taken away. And what is taken away is greater than the sum of what was there. This may not be mathematically possible; but it is emotionally possible.” At one point Barnes describes grief as “the negative image of love” and asks: “if there can be an accumulation of love over the years, then why not of grief?”
Levels of Life is a controlled and measured expression of a loss that, by any metric, is immeasurable.