Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

Levels of Life – Julian Barnes

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on December 28, 2013

Levels of LifeLevels of LifeJulian Barnes’s latest book is a slim and strange one for its ability to knit together coherently three disparate and seemingly unrelated topics viz. ballooning and aerial photography, an un-requited love story and a deep sense of grief on the death of a beloved one. True to its title, Barnes takes the readers through three different levels of life viz. First, “The Sin of Height”: which provides a wonderful history of the rise and romance of ballooning and aerial photography on both sides of the English Channel (a life up in air). Second, “On the Level”: an unrequited love story between Colonel Fred Burnaby and French actress Sarah Bernhardt drawn together by mutual attraction and common passion for the adventure of ballooning ( a life firmly rooted on earth). Third, which is the pièce de résistance in the book is “The Loss of Depth”, a majestic reminiscence on the nature of grief (something that emanates with in us after burying our dear ones six feet deep in the ground).

It is in the last part of the book that Barnes really shows what a good contemporary writer he is. Five years back, Barnes’s wife Pat Kavanagh, to whom he was married for nearly three decades died. It is in the sustained experience of grief for over half a decade that Barnes also examines the general nature of grief. Barnes begins his examination with the assertion that “Grief, like death, is banal and unique”. Yet what we get to witness in his writing till the end is a deeply meditative and multi-dimensional exploration of various aspects of this so called subject of banality. The felt grief is personal, yet, Barnes manages to abstract his observations on the workings and mechanics of grief to a level of elevation that it starts to become a human universal. Barnes draws heavily metaphors from the first two parts of the book and that is when we start to understand relevance of those two parts in a clearer light. In doing so Barnes also emphasizes on the weight of grief on an individual and how it internalizes itself till the last day of his life. It appears that Barnes had a premonition about the grief-state he would enter in his future. He quotes from his own writing on the state of widowhood which dates back to three decades:

When she dies, you are not first surprised. Part of love is preparing for death. You feel confirmed in your love when she dies. You got it right. This is part of it all

Afterwards comes the madness. And then the loneliness: not the spectacular solitude you had anticipated, not the interesting martyrdom of widowhood, but just loneliness. You expect something almost geological – vertigo in a shelving canyon – but it’s not like that; it’s just misery as regular as a job….. [People say] you’ll come out of it….. And you do come out of it, that’s true. But you don’t come out of it like a train coming out of a tunnel, bursting through the Downs into sunshine and that swift, rattling descent to the Channel; you come out of it as a gull comes out of an oil slick; you are tarred and feathered for life

A wonderfully lucid yet accurate portrayal!

Literature may not be life-giving in first place but it definitely ought to be life-sustaining and life-affirming through accurate illumination of diverse aspects of human condition. That should be the aim of any good literary effort. Julian Barnes’s “Levels of Life” hits the bull’s eye when it comes to this aspect of literature.

Overall, a splendid and memorable read

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