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Art and Culture

Likely Stories: Levels of Life

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Booker Prize winner Barnes has an interesting essay about ballooning, photography, love, and grief.

I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

The 2011 Booker Prize winner Julian Barnes explores the idea of two people coming together for the first time and the changes which occur.  But Levels of Life is much more complicated than that.

The essay is divided into three parts, which revolve around historical figures: the renowned 19th century actor, Sara Bernhardt and Colonel Fred Burnaby, an aeronautical enthusiast.  When he meets Sara, the world is changed until the sudden collapse of their affair.

Barnes’ prose is vivid and heart rending.  He writes in part two, “We live on a flat, on the level, and yet – and so -- we aspire.  Groundlings, we can sometimes reach as far as the gods.  Some soar with art, others with religion; most with love.  But when we soar, we can also crash.  There are few soft landings.  We may find ourselves bouncing across the ground with leg-fracturing force, dragged towards some foreign railway line.  Every love story is a potential grief story.  If not at first, then later.  If not for one, then for the other.  Sometimes, for both” (39).  His language is quite poetic.

In part three, Barnes begins a lengthy meditation on life, love, and loss after the death of his wife, Pat Kavanagh, in 2008.  Following condolences from a friend, Barnes writes, “The same friend, four years later, said, ‘I resent the fact that she’s become part of the past.’  If this isn’t yet true for me, the grammar, like everything else, has begun the shift: she exists not really in the present, not wholly in the past, but in some intermediate tense, the past-present.  Perhaps this is why I relish hearing even the slightest new thing about her: a previously unreported memory, a piece of advice she gave years ago, a flashback in ordinary animation.  I take surrogate pleasure in her appearances in other people’s dreams – how she behaves and is dressed, what she eats, how close she is now to how she was then; also whether I am there with her.  Such fugitive moments excite me, because they briefly re-anchor her in the present, rescue her from the past-present, and delay a little longer that inevitable slippage into the past historic” (117).

He provides an interesting quote from Dr. Samuel Johnson who, “well understood the ‘tormenting and harassing want’ of grief; and he warned against isolationism and withdrawal.  ‘An attempt to preserve life in a state of neutrality and indifference is unreasonable and vain.  If by excluding joy we could shut out grief, the scheme would deserve very serious attention.’  But it doesn’t.  Nor do extreme measures, like the attempt to ‘drag [the heart] by force into scenes of merriment’; or its opposite, the attempt ‘to soothe it into tranquility by making it acquainted with miseries more dreadful and afflictive.’  For Johnson, only work and time mitigate grief.  ‘Sorrow is a kind of rust of the soul, which every new idea contributes in its passage to scour away’” (118).

I found Julian Barnes’ essay, The Levels of Life comforting.  I know I will face loss, and I will return to this interesting essay as an excellent companion through dark times.  5 stars

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!