Levels of Life by Julian Barnes (JonathanCape: 2013). A book in three parts from a Booker Prize winning author. A literary mash up, exploring the history of ballooning, photography, love stories, and death. Wide ranging stuff.
What’s the saddest thing you can think of? Me, it’s always been a husband losing his wife (or a wife losing her husband for that matter). Always got me that one. Doesn’t matter how cheesy it is, that plot element has always made me choke when it’s cropped up on the screen or page.
And yet I subject myself to this. One of the world’s most decorated writers putting pen to paper to explore the grief he felt when his wife died.
I’m an idiot.
In fairness, it’s not all about that. The book is split in three parts. The first is a bit of non-fiction about ballooning and photography, the second is a bit of historical fiction centred on a bohemian love story gone wrong, and then the third part is where Barnes goes to town on his grief.
It works. Brilliantly. And here’s why.
For starts, it works because of the first two sections. They’re amazing. A quirky history of a quirky endeavour, followed by a thorough (but tastily bite-sized) love story which grows as it’s told. Both of the first two sections entertained me, set some of the structural thought which characterised the third section's grief, and introduced emotion slowly rather than simply plunging you in at the deep end.
For seconds, it worked because of the honesty and the rawness and the sheer humanity of the third section. There is no universal truth to grief, no universal experience. Julian Barnes is Julian Barnes; he felt and experienced and reacted to his grief in a Julian Barnes way. At no point does he melt into easy cliché. At no point does he pluck at the usual heart strings in the usual ways. He violently kicks against any sense of Disney emotion. He tells what happened to him - anecdote by anecdote, analogy by analogy – and leaves little out.
And for thirds, it works because this is Julian Barnes we’re talking about here. The guy can write. Every now and then, a sentence or a phrase or a structure will just knock you flat on your ass. I’ve read Barnes before and not quite got it, but I’m acutely aware pretty much everyone else has. The guy has high flung literary praise coming at him from every direction. And in this book, I get it too. I submit. Julian Barnes; you can write good.
One of the best things you’ll read this year. Why not 10 you ask? Because I do the scores, not you.
Next week, another story of a man losing his wife. I’m a glutton for punishment.