Monday, August 25, 2014

Levels of Life by Julian Barnes

In writing the novel Flaubert's Parrot, novelist Julian Barnes imagined grief felt by retired doctor Geoffrey Braithwait upon the death of his wife. According to Barnes, he never expected to be in the same position himself, assuming that his wife would survive him. But she died in 2008 very soon after her being diagnosed with cancer. In the third essay "The Loss of Depth" in Levels of Life, Barnes describes his grief, a reality much beyond anything he imagined for poor Braithwait.

The reviewer from the New York Times said that he wished that Barnes had only published the 56-page third essay, as it is so eloquent and powerful. It seemed to him the first two essays did not matter. I would disagree. I think their stories of amusing lightness followed by almost predictable tragedies set readers up well for the third essay. The two pieces (one true and the other fiction) give us memory in common with the author, and he draws from them in telling his own story of grief. We have shared an interest (if the two essay interest you) and are in a sense attune to the author. Their lightness makes the impact of the weighty third essay greater. 

Working in a library, observing the requests for Levels of Life, I saw a borrowing pattern much like that for The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. Having now read both, I see why. A book discussion on the pair might be very interesting.

Barnes, Julian. Levels of Life. Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. 128p. ISBN 9780385350778.

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