Monday, November 18, 2013

Levels of life by Julian Barnes

A review by Jessica Birchall

I read The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes last year. I can’t tell you what it was about (I have a memory like a goldfish) but I remember enjoying it immensely. The writing is very considered and sparse but very beautiful. His work is what writing should be.

On the back cover of this book is what looks like a normal author profile but this one gives us so much more. There is a photograph of Barnes and his blurb says that he is the author of twenty books and he met his wife in 1978. Below is a photograph of Barnes’ wife, Pat Kavanagh, a literary agent and her blurb says that they married in 1979. It also says that she dies in 2008. You immediately know you are in for a very personal story.

This novel is divided into three parts. It begins by exploring man’s obsession with flight and its invention of ballooning as a way to discover the freedom of the sky. This sport gave adventurers the freedom and the danger of being at the mercy of the elements. We are introduced to some of the characters that were involved (obsessed) with ballooning.

The second part of the novel relates the story of Fred Burnaby (not Barnaby), an enthusiastic ballooner and his brief relationship with Sarah Bernhardt, the actress. Bernhardt has bohemian ideals (“I shall love you for as long as I shall love you”) and is on an adventure herself, continually seeking pleasure. Burnaby wants permanence and ultimately leaves with a broken heart. This grief (I use this word deliberately, as you will see) follows him for the rest of his life.

The third part of the novel is from the author’s personal point of view as he describes his torment and grief on the death of his wife. This is heavy stuff. Barnes grapples with the construct of grief: does it leave, does it diminish, should it diminish, does the level of intensity indicate the depth of the relationship, “It hurts exactly as much as it is worth.” Barnes also discusses his frustration and other people’s discomfort when he mentions his wife’s name as if they want her and his grief to simply disappear.

The three parts are woven together with the common theme of love and grief of losing that love. It is an exquisite book that is as delicate and sensitive as the subject matter.

Publisher: Random House, 2013

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