Levels of Life by Julian Barnes

An essay on grief…

levels of lifeIn this short book, Barnes gives an intimate picture of his on-going grief over the death of his wife in 2008. It is not easy reading as it touches on aspects of grief that most of us will have faced at some time and will either still be going through or will with luck have moved on from. He starts with a contemplation of ballooning as a metaphor for love raising us to a higher level, but the bulk of the book is about how he has lived with his grief, including his musings on whether he would or will commit suicide.

I have chosen not to give this a ‘star-rating’ as it surely cannot be defined as ‘I love it’, ‘It’s OK’ etc. It is undoubtedly skilfully written and moving in parts. It is, and I’m sorry to say it, also self-indulgent – while accepting that other people have undoubtedly undergone grief, Barnes writes as if he is the first to truly experience and understand it. It also seemed strange that this man in his sixties writes as if he is encountering grief for the first time in his life. I suspect he is subtly making a case for the grief of an uxorious husband (he uses the word uxorious himself, several times) being greater than other griefs.

I would, I suspect, have found this deeply moving had it been a letter from a close friend, but its intimacy is too intense – it left me with an uncomfortable sense of voyeurism. He criticises, in ways that I’m sure would enable them to recognise themselves, his friends’ attempts to console him with clichéd expressions of condolence and encouragement. Have we not all felt that? But have we not all understood the genuine warmth behind these clichés and forgiven the clumsiness? Indeed, have we not all been as clumsy when the situation was reversed? But I think it is his musing on the possibility of his own suicide, a future he does not wholly rule out, that left me feeling I had read a private letter addressed to someone else.

We will all react differently to this book and for some it may provide comfort to know that the feelings we feel are not unique to us. I wish I could have written an uncritical review of this – I considered not posting a review at all, but it seems to me that some people will be misled by the publisher’s blurb, as I was, and find themselves reading, not a novel about ‘ballooning, photography, love and grief’, but an essay on Barnes’ personal road through his own grief – a road it seems he is still travelling.

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6 thoughts on “Levels of Life by Julian Barnes

    • I haven’t read Sense of an Ending – in fact, the only Barnes book I’ve really enjoyed was Arthur and George. This one really isn’t fiction at all, except for a very short piece at the beginning. It is interesting, and of course well written, but I also found it quite self-indulgent and to be honest rather wish I hadn’t read it. I’ll be interested to hear what you think if you read it.

      • I’ve read Joan Didion’s “Year of Magical Thinking” (about the year following her husband’s death) and “Blue Nights,” the book about her daughter’s death, and both we well done, not self-indulgent. I think the common thread for both was that we are all visited by tragedy and death at some point in our lives, no matter how wealthy or privileged. And in the end, the deaths of friends and family make us confront our own mortality. These are not necessarily original thoughts, but her presentation was lyrical and stylistically engaging. Perhaps I’ll read a different book by Barnes instead of “Levels of Life.”

        • Admittedly it’s been getting great reviews from people who feel quite differently to me though, so don’t let me put you off! I felt he was making the case that because he has grieved more intensely and for longer than most people that somehow that means that other people haven’t loved as deeply as him – not a conclusion that I think stands up to scrutiny.

          Also, his indication that he may commit suicide at some point in the future left me very uncomfortable – that’s not something I want to be told when there’s nothing I can do about it. And that’s really what I mean by self-indulgent. To leave the reader feeling both complicit and helpless might be an OK reaction to fiction, but not to ‘real life’. However, from the few reviews I’ve seen I seem to be in a minority, though not alone, in feeling this way about the book.

  1. I just came upon your review via the Amazon link that a friend of mine sent me on Facebook (whew, that was a long introduction!) and I loved it. After reading “Pulse” (a short story collection) and “The Sense of an Ending” by the same author, I think this should be my next Julian Barnes book. It’s a bit strange but even though you didn’t really like the book, your review made me wish I had it right now in my hands.
    As for the self-indulgent part, don’t we all feel the same at that most intense time of grief, when all hope seems to have gone out of life? That our grief is stronger, our pain the most intense – I think it’s normal but I’ll reserve my final judgement for when I read the book.
    Thanks again for the great review, I’ll be coming back to your blog to read more.

    P.S. Chocolate is great, the darker the better. 🙂

    • Thanks for visiting and commenting, Delia! I certainly wouldn’t try to talk anyone out of this book – it’s getting as many rave reviews as ones like mine, maybe more. The reason I used the term self-indulgent is that it seemed to me that he was suggesting that anyone who gets over grief clearly didn’t truly love the person – a dangerous thing to tell someone who may be in the process of recovering from a loss. I am genuinely sorry that he seems to have been unable to get over the death of his wife but most people find a way through and shouldn’t be made to feel that that means they haven’t loved enough. But of course that’s only my opinion – I’ll be interested to hear what you think of it when you read it. 🙂

      Any shade of chocolate works for me! 😉

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