Grief is infinite
Julian Barnes is one of my favourite writers. Not that I’m alone in this because Barnes is an extremely popular writer, indeed regarded as one of the best writing in English at present – winner of the Booker prize and all that.
Usually Barnes is nothing if not predictable but in his latest book, ‘Levels of Life’, he takes an unusual swerve. The most private of people Barnes dissects and analyses his grieving for his wife, Pat. In 2008 she had been diagnosed with a brain tumour and she died just 37 days later. They had been together for 30 years and the loss to the devoted Barnes and the pain he struggles with pours out through his words.
He probably needed to write this book to try to make sense of what happened. Or at least to immerse himself in the experience at a part distance. He waited for four years before writing this book, probably because the pain was so intense but also, no doubt, because you can be so close to something that you can’t see it properly.
He dipped his toe a bit in the water with the short story, ‘Marriage Lines’, in his 2008 collection ‘Pulse’ collection, which considered the grief of a widower and his ‘The Sense of an Ending’ which won the Booker prize in 2011, reflects the emotional intensity of the aftermath of his wife’s death and features a character driven to suicide.
‘Levels of Life’ is, in many ways a strange book. Just over a hundred pages the first section, at first sight, seems to be a potted history of ballooning but clearly the pioneering of balloon flight and the development of aerial photography is a metaphor for enduring memories and the sense of freedom flight represents. The intensity of first love is captured in the undreamt of possibilities that ballooning represented.
The second section is a fictionalised account of a relationship between Fred Burnaby of the Royal Horse Guards and the famous French actress Sarah Bernhardt. It is about a love that reaches a settled plain, losing the first thrill but reaching a depth of mutual enrichment.
Then Barnes launches into the third section with an emotional intensity and sheer rawness quite at odds with the calmness of the earlier sections: ‘I do not believe I shall ever see her again. Never see, hear, touch, embrace, listen to, laugh with; never again wait for her footstep, smile at the sound of an opening door, fit her body into mine, mine into hers. Nor do I believe we shall meet again in some dematerialised form. I believe dead is dead’.
He couldn’t be angry with God as some are, because he doesn’t believe in Him. When one of the few Christians he knew said that he would pray for Pat when she was ill Barnes found himself responding that ‘his god didn’t seem to be very effective’. Later his reaction was more considered: ‘When we killed or exiled our longstanding imaginary friend,’ he writes, ‘we sawed off the branch we were sitting on’, an unintentional and back-handed compliment to how belief can help us to grieve.
Every love story, Barnes writes, is potentially a grief story. Grief is the price that’s paid for love. And it’s an individual and personal journey. He quotes E.M. Forster: ‘One death may explain itself, but it throws no light upon another’. Grief in turn becomes unimaginable ‘not just its length and depth, but its tone and texture, its deceptions and false dawns’.
The all-too-predictable reactions of others are part of the pain and the consolation. A friend wrote that ‘the pain is proportionate to the love’ and he could buy that. Some told him he was looking better, that he would eventually ‘meet someone’. Others couldn’t handle the discomfort when he mentioned his wife’s name in company. Some avoided him as ‘if they fear infection’. Others tried to jolly him up, a friend a week after the death, chirpily enquiring if he would like to go on a walking holiday. Words fail, and people do too. Once in company he mentioned her name three times but no one ran with it: ‘they denied her thrice, and I thought the worst of them for it’.
Strangely, and certainly as unbelievable as belief in the hereafter, is his belief that his wife is still there. This, he says, is what those who haven’t crossed the tropic of grief, often fail to understand – the fact that someone is dead may mean they are not alive, but doesn’t mean that they do not exist.
So he talks to his dead wife constantly. He tells her about what he’s doing. He teases her and she teases him back. Her voice calms him and gives him courage. Banal, domestic issues are discussed – she ‘confirms that the bath mat is a disgrace and should be thrown away’. Outsiders, he writes, may find this an eccentric or morbid or self-deceiving habit; but outsiders are by definition those who have not known grief’. Reaching out beyond the grave is what we sometimes need to do.
Barnes brings his sharp mind to consider what ‘success’ in mourning means. Does it lie in remembering or in forgetting? A staying still or a moving on? Or some combination of both. Sometimes you want to go on loving the pain. Is ‘success’ at grief, at mourning, at sorrow, he ponders, an achievement or merely a new condition? It feels as if she is slipping away from him a second time: ‘first I lose her in the present, then I lose her in the past’.
Grief, he concludes, is not finite; something one recovers from, like the flu. Time doesn’t necessarily diminish sorrow. We don’t make the clouds come in the first place, and we have no power to disperse them.
This isn’t a book to be read when grief is raw but later when time or distance have helped to settle the grief, if that’s possible. It’s a book to savour when we’re able for it. Like every good book, novel or memoir, it helps us to find out a bit more about ourselves.
(First published in the Western People 24 May 2013).