[Published 2013 by Random House. First published 2013.]
Love is for the brave.
Julian Barnes wrote ‘Levels of Life’ following the death of his wife, after a couple of years of ruminating on love, death, and grief. I do not know if I can write a review that will do this book justice and explain the impact it has had on me. I am a huge fan of Julian Barnes – he writes books with an underlying voice that makes the stories real. But this takes that idea to a new level. I cannot help but wonder if he has known all along that his literary career would culminate in a memoir that gives everything he has written a new perspective – one that fits into the levels of life.
‘Levels of Life’ is divided into three books – ‘The Sin of Height,’ ‘On the Level’ and ‘The Loss of Depth.’ The first half of the book contains stories of the pioneer aeronauts and early photographers, and a love story between an actress and one of these balloonists. The second half, the bulk of the book, is where he lays bare the nature of his grief in losing his wife. The latter is more than you could expect – it gives me goosebumps every time I think about it. The three sections are tied up into a book that will reverberate with those who let it, long after the last page has been read.
I will not write too much. I believe everyone should experience ‘Levels of Life’ for themselves. It is a book that made me wonder if we are each born with our own individual wisdom – with Barnes unveiling the answers to some of life’s questions through his writing. And then I realised that the reason for the depth and impact of this book was the honesty; the wisdom that comes through grief (though we would probably be just as happy without it), and the unravelling of the strata of life, through which we shall all stumble.
This is a memoir of his grief. It visits many of the planes that will make up most of our life stories – risk-taking, denial, magic, love, truth, grief, and remembering. And, in Barnes’s own shaking yet powerful voice, we bear witness to a man broken by love lost through death. Grief is unique to us all, yet exclusive to no-one. This man shares his experience in the best way he knows how, and turns the darkest nooks and crannies of real life into a work of pure, breathtaking art.
‘Levels of Life’ is an exploration of marriage and love and its opposite – loss and grief. To anyone thinking of and, indeed, those who are already married, this book should be read for good measure. It exposes the enormity of the undertaking to love; knowing it will come to an end; knowing it will end in incomprehensible heartbreak. There is, however, bravery in grief and, although death may change the status quo, it cannot eliminate real love.
[On a slightly deeper personal note, I was deeply moved to read this book a few weeks before getting married. For those who take love and the institution of marriage seriously, it is something that we don’t afford enough time when planning our lives together. Love can end in any number of ways and, for those fortunate enough to live long lives together separated by death, no amount of thought on the matter can prepare you for the gravity of the loss.
My mother was a young widow. I believe lamentation in the face of loss is something as distinct to us as a fingerprint. But to have a peephole into the turmoil of grief is a gift. I will read this book many times in my life. I will immerse myself in the emotion of it.
It was also a fitting book to read after ‘Everyman,’ with the two books having very contrasting perspectives on death from those going through it and those left behind.]