Julian Barnes’ third of three essays, ‘The Loss of Depth’, is an epilogue in form and in subject-matter, trapping the pulse of his wife’s memory in his intimate and moving portrait of grief.
“You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed.” So begins Julian Barnes’ Levels of Life, a triptych of essays that is at once a celebration of love, and a profound examination of sorrow. Comprising of ‘The Sin of Height’, ‘On the Level’, and ‘The Loss of Depth’, Barnes gives us the story of Nadar, the pioneer balloonist and aerial photographer; the story of Colonel Fred Burnaby and Sarah Bernhardt; then, in his harrowing final piece, he shares with us his own grief about the death of his wife, courageously endured.
It is this last essay that I would like to focus on, as it is the emotional centre of the book. Barnes, with devastating honesty, depicted how he dealt with the death of wife, Pat Kavanagh. They were together for 30 years, until she died just 37 days after discovering she had a brain tumour. He describes her as “the heart of my life; the life of my heart.” Such an abrupt encounter with death could be brutal enough to paralyse even the brightest minds. However, this is far from the case with Barnes.
As is often true, the result of such tragedy is a raw yet restrained piece of art: sincere in its emotions, restrained in its form. Barnes offers us a polished, meditative memoir which flourishes with literary ingenuity, distinguished also by his sensibilities in classical traditions. As a writer, Barnes believes in the patterns his words construct, which he hopes will naturally add up to stories, ideas and truths, in which he can find salvation, both for the grief-stricken living, and the griefless dead. What is impressive, therefore, is the way in which he sustained his finesse throughout, resisting the temptation to unload his burden onto his reader.
Barnes’ approach is reminiscent of Robert Frost’s reply when asked “Isn’t writing that is spontaneous, even disorderly, a better way to reflect the traumas of modern-day experience?” The answer Frost gave was this: “I lost my nearest friend in the one they called the Great War. So did Achilles lose his friend in war, and Homer did no injustice to his grief by writing about it in dactylic hexameters … Such grief can only be told in form … Without it you’ve got nothing but a stubbed-toe cry – sincere, maybe, for what that’s worth, but with no depth or carry. No echo. You may have a grievance but you do not have grief.”
Phase by phase, Barnes describes his experience floating through the various stages of bereavement, from anger to calmness. As he observes “one grief throws no light upon another”, he himself starts with an outward anger against the injustice he has suffered. His stubborn insistence to invoke his wife whenever he can, and his scorn for euphemisms such as “passed” or “lost to cancer” proved to be the source of many awkward moments between him and his friends. Barnes even admits being angry at travellers on buses, whose “cheerful, happy and normal faces” enrage him. “It’s just the Universe doing its stuff,” he says bitterly, yet he is no clearer on what the “stuff” is.
Gradually, the outward anger is absorbed into an inward obsession. He developed a habit of talking with Pat, believing that she visits and converses with him in his dreams.
He justifies this with his own irresistible logic: “the fact that someone is dead may mean that they are not alive, but doesn’t mean that they do not exist.” This vision of a loved one returning again is strange, but not unheard of, as we see echoes in the works of Su Dongpo, the 11th century Chinese poet:
‘In a dream last night suddenly I was home.
By the window of the little room,
You were combing your hair and making up.
You turned and looked, not speaking, Only lines of tears coursing down’
When it all becomes too much to bear, Barnes contemplates the possibility of suicide. He describes his preferred methods in excruciating detail: a hot bath, a glass of wine next to the taps, and an exceptionally sharp Japanese carving knife. Poignantly, his only reason for resisting is out of his love for her: “she was alive in my memory — she was within me, internalised. How am I to live? I must live as she would have wanted.”
In one moving passage Barnes recollects seeing Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice (in which Orpheus descends to the Underworld and leads back his wife, Eurydice, on the condition that he can’t look at her until they are in the land of the living) and thinking first to himself how could anyone be so senseless as to look back at his wife, just as when she is so close to be saved. Yet it all makes sense to him, now that he is in the same position of bereavement. Of course Orpheus would turn to look at the pleading Eurydice — how could he not? “Because, while ‘no one in his sense’ would do so, he is quite out of his senses with love and grief and hope.” That is what the world is for: to lose for one glance. How could anyone hold to their vow with Eurydice’s voice at their back? Such precise in- sight into the mind of someone in intense grief is simultaneously illuminating and heart-breaking. The essay finishes on a note of sublime tranquillity as he finally reconciles her death with himself. When the memory of her fades, he frantically tries to relive her final moments — the last book she read, the last wine she drank, the last clothes she bought; her last written sentence, her last spoken word — but to no avail. Grief has moved elsewhere, shifted its interest, and with it took the last living memories of her. And he is powerless over it. “We did not make the clouds come in the first place, and have no power to disperse them.” His final message, however, is one of movement and hope —”an unexpected breeze has sprung up, and we are in movement again. But where are we being taken? To Essex? The German Ocean? Or, if that wind is a northerly, then perhaps, with luck, to France.” Personally, I would like to interpret the enigmatic closing lines as the sign that his love for her has not gone away, but he will carry it with him wherever he goes. Barnes’ prose might fade out, but Pat’s imprint on her widower is an obituary which is everlasting.