Category Archives: barnes

Levels of Life

I just finished Levels of Life, and I can’t remember a book making me cry this much. It was beautifully constructed, orchestrated through the chapters to the end that intermingled all that was before, much like life, but without an actual end.

This book does not concern itself with endings, but rather with the process of life, and the ordeal that is death. The coming to terms part that is ever so hard to endure. The finale that all of us have to go through, but not in ourselves, in those we love, is here displayed in the raw.  As the story unfolds, so does the quiet devastation of loss. Yet, in the end it is not death that is encapsulated, but rather life. Watching someone you love die, and then continuing to live.

There are moments which appear to indicate some kind of progress. When the tears – the daily, unavoidable tears – stop. When concentration returns, and a book can be read as before. When foyer-terror departs. When possessions can be disposed of (Orfeo had things worked out differently, would have given that red frock to charity). And beyond this? What are you waiting for, looking for? The time when life turns back from opera into realist fiction. When that bridge you still drive under regularly becomes just another bridge again. When you retrospectively annul the results of that examination which some friends passed and others failed. When the temptation of suicide finally disappears – if it ever does. When cheerfulness has become more fragile, and present pleasure no match for past joy. When grief becomes “just” the memory of grief – if it ever does. When the world reverts to being “just” the world, and life feels once more as if it is taking place on the flat, on the level. 

These may sound like clear markers, boxes awaiting a tick. But among any success there is much failure, much recidivism. Sometimes, you want to go on loving the pain. And then, beyond this, yet another question sharply outlines itself on the cloud: is “success” at grief, at mourning, at sorrow, an achievement, or merely a new given condition? Because the notion of free will seems irrelevant here; the attribution of purpose and virtue – the idea of grief-work rewarded – feels misplaced. Perhaps, this time, the analogy with illness holds. Studies of cancer patients show that attitudes of mind have very little effect on clinical outcome. We may say we are fighting cancer, but cancer is merely fighting us; we may think we have beaten it, when it has only gone away to regroup. It is all just the universe doing its stuff, and we are the stuff it is being done to. And so, perhaps, with grief. We imagine we have battled against it, been purposeful, overcome sorrow, scrubbed the rust from our soul, when all that has happened is that grief has moved elsewhere, shifted its interest. We did not make the clouds come in the first place, and have no power to disperse them. All that has happened is that from somewhere – or nowhere – 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. 

I understand that large parts of this passage make little sense out of context, but surely the meaning is intact, and if anything, provides enough of an incentive to read the rest, if only to decipher the meaning of the last lines, or the references to living “on the level” and Orfeo.

There are many levels of life, and as it continues, so do many of these levels get peeled away. They were intermingled with others that no longer exist, and each one lies closer to the core, where muted melancholy meets understanding. Not of anything great, but the simply kind of understanding that breeds acceptance, any maybe peace. At the very least, a will to move forward.

Shifting Perspective

I read Talking It Over fifteen years ago (five years after it had originally been written, which will be important later). I read its sequel, Love, etc. about ten years ago when it came out. I am rereading it now. I meant to start with the original and rework my way into the sequel, but I haven’t a clue where it is. Either way the second book really captures the tone of both, so I don’t mind. But reading it now I realize just how much perspective changes. Which is really what is being evoked in the novel. The whole point of the work is introducing three characters, watching their lives unravel from a most voyeuristic point of view, and then leaving them, unresolved. In this sense the whole thing reminded me of Pinter’s The Collection. In fact, it is just like that, except perhaps a bit more witty, and a little less ambiguous. Unlike Stella in The Collection, no one wonders about Gillian in Talking It Over. The question isn’t whether she did. Or even why she did. It it not the type of work that asks questions, or at least not directly. It simply shows, exposes the narrative for what it is, and then moves on.
Ten years later, in Love, etc. the same three characters are revisited. If the books are read as they were written, with a reader returning ten years after having read the first book, then the beauty of perspective as Barnes intended is truly achieved. As the characters lay out their stories it becomes obvious that they too have changed. The story does not pick up where it left off, but rather in real time. Whatever opinions you have of Stuart, Oliver or Gillian, and whatever beliefs they may have had, have been altered in time. The characters and the reader have undergone a series of permutations, and the first story can be looked at retrospectively, as a meditation on the past, simultaneously experienced by the characters and the reader.
As the characters can discuss the events of the first book among themselves and with the reader (yes, it is that sort of book), so too can the reader think back, and in doing so compare perspectives and reactions. What was then? What is now? What happened in the meantime?
When I said I read the first book fifteen years ago, and then the second only ten, I did not allow a full ten years to pass between readings. But I could not have read the first book when it first came out. I was too young. But the five year difference didn’t affect anything. I was still too young. Yet there is where the shift of perspective comes in. At the time I didn’t know I was too young. I made perfect sense of everything. After all, I was literate and understood all the words on the page. What more was there?Reading it now, I can understand things I never even knew existed back then. The references were lost on me. Better put, the finer connotations were lost. I could read perfectly what was on the page, but did not grasp what remained unsaid. And sometimes, what is unsaid has the most meaning.

Yet what is even more interesting is my own curiosity at what will be my reaction in another ten or fifteen years. How will I read it then? What will it mean? What happens in the meantime?