Having lost my 6-year-old son to cancer, I’ve read plenty about grief. And, as a Christian, I’ve read plenty about faith and grief. Leave it to an atheist to write the best book I’ve read yet. Julian Barnes is a highly respected novelist and essayist who wrote “Levels of Life” after his wife, Pat Kavanagh, died after nearly 30 years of marriage.
This is not a typical book about grief. In fact, much of it does not look like it deals with grief at all, which is where the genius comes in. Barnes splits his short book into three sections. The first section, “The Sin of Height,” is about early adventurous folks and their foray into ballooning. “You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed.” Such is the world of people and balloons, or photography and balloons, or two people together. So, what is the sin of height? Is it our desire and willingness to rise about ourselves? What else is love other than the rising above yourself by being with another. “Together, in that first exaltation, that first roaring sense of uplift, they are greater than their two separate selves.” Put together two things and you have something new and, in love, better than what you had before. So what is the sin? The desire to be more than we are?
We come down to “On the Level,” the second section of the book. Back on the ground, we deal with life as we find it. We can fly above the world, but we most come down. “But when we soar, we can also crash. There are few soft landings.” So, why when we are on the ground do we constantly aspire to more? Because love is where truth and magic meet. It may be photography (truth) and ballooning (magic), but it may also be two people. And even though we are aware of the dangers of combining truth and magic, or rising in a basket below gas and hot air, we seek to rise above ourselves. But that goal to rise above our ground level leads us to a new level, “The Loss of Depth.”
In this final section, Barnes finally directly addresses the loss of his wife and the resulting
Julian Barnes and Pat Kavanagh
grief. The first two sections lay the groundwork to help people understand better the loss of depth or the depth of grief. Some of the writing in this section could not be more accurate to the experience of grief. He opens. “You put together two people who have not been put together before. Sometimes it is like that first attempt to harness a hydrogen balloon to a fire balloon: do you prefer crash and burn, or burn and crash?…Then, at some point, sooner or later, for this reason or that, one of them is taken away. And what is taken away is greater than the sum of what was there. This may not be mathematically possible; but it is emotionally possible.”
These stunning last two lines are written by Barnes in relation to his wife, but they apply to any relationship. My son has been taken away from me and my wife, but what is taken away is greater than what we had. Our relationship is greater for the loss, a mathematical impossibility. But love is not confined to our mathematical structures. Later he returns to this apparently illogical formula. “Grief is the negative image of love; and if there can be accumulation of love over the years, then why not of grief?” Everyone expects loss to diminish over the years, but can it not increase? Note that he does not say grief is the opposite of love. It is the “negative,” like a negative of a photo. It is the other aspect we do not see except in special circumstances.
“This is what those who haven’t crossed the tropic of grief often fail to understand: the fact that someone is dead may mean that they are not alive, but doesn’t mean they do not exist.” Barnes tells about friends who refuse to talk about his wife, even when he repeatedly raises her name. Others encourage him to move on, but he has no interest in moving on from the memory of his wife. He keeps her alive by remembering her. Why would he stop? However, Barnes does not offer space for people to hide in their grief. “There are many traps and dangers in grief, and time does not diminish them. Self-pity, isolationism, world-scorn, an egotistical exceptionalism: all aspects of vanity.Look how much I suffer, how much others fail to understand: does this not prove how much I loved? Maybe, maybe not….The griefstruck demand sympathy, yet, irked by any challenge to their primacy, underestimate the pain others are suffering over the same loss.” Or, perhaps, any loss.
So, what does Barnes offer to overcome all of this? Nothing. Instead, it is a call to understand those in the midst of grief. A challenge for people to look at death, which we avoid, and the loss others can have for people. His only nod to Christianity is a sharp jab at a Christian who notes that Christ also suffered. He responds, is that all your God has to offer? But here Barnes slips because he assumes that Christianity offers an answer to suffering. Instead, it offers a model. And, it respects the grief we experience, just as Barnes is seeking from others. Perhaps he has considered this since the book — he is more recently called agnostic.