What readers want
By Anna Aslanyan.
Levels of Life, Julian Barnes, Jonathan Cape 2013
“The fact of the matter is, that if you take off from almost anywhere in southern England, you generally find yourself landing in Essex.” This is how Fred Burnaby, an English adventurer, explains ballooning to Sarah Bernhardt as he tries to win the actress’ heart. The early days of aeronautics are used in Julian Barnes’ latest book as a metaphor for, among other things, love and loss. “A gas balloon might explode, a fire balloon, unsurprisingly, could catch fire” – these are two possible outcomes of a flight, but also of a life lived “on the level”. Such metaphorical treatment starts in an intensive fashion and goes on for the first two parts of the book, before giving way to something a lot more convincing in the third, final one.
In part two, within the space of a few pages, as the lovers converse, we hear that Burnaby “felt deflated”; then he confesses: “I fear I am still in the clouds, Madame Sarah”; finally, he gives up: “I cannot bandy metaphor any longer.” Yet, after Captain Fred is rejected by the Divine Sarah, the author dashes for another one: “The water was freezing and he had not so much as a cork overjacket to protect him.” Look here, the reader is tempted to say, upon this picture: “Her dressing gown is bleu de ciel, the colour of the sky in which they no longer flew” and on this: “I think it was the Earthrise that really kind of got everybody in the solar plexus…” The former is Barnes’ own invention, the latter a quote from someone Major General Anders. Where is he taking us? To la belle France? Or to Essex?
Over the last five years, Barnes’ books have been getting thinner, less focused on literature and, now, more personal. One thing that has remained the same is their dedication: “for Pat”. Levels of Life also has a picture of the author’s late wife, Pat Kavanagh, on its jacket. On the pages, Barnes speaks publicly about her sudden death in October 2008 for the first time.
The crucial point in the book comes with the author’s confession: “I did already know that only the old words would do: death, grief, sorrow, sadness, heartbreak.” It is those words that make it possible to discuss “death, that banal, unique thing” without slipping into bathos. Not everyone can do that. Barnes struggles with people using euphemisms: “to pass”, “to lose someone to cancer”. He is hurt by his friends’ refusal to talk about Kavanagh. “Afraid to touch her name, they denied her thrice,” and the widower, naturally, takes this denial very hard. One friend went as far as to suggest – on what turned out to be his wife’s last day – he take a long holiday and offering to look after his house and garden, which would be good for Freddie (their dog).
Barnes is bitter about these betrayals, and can only hope that, as time goes by and his grief subsides, he can “annul the results of that examination which some friends passed and others failed.” Certain members of the literary establishment must be already rubbing their hands in anticipation of a guessing game: “Who’s got a dog called Freddie?” Some of his acquaintances, according to Barnes, have found him difficult to talk to, his grief “an embarrassment”. This is hard to imagine. In September 2008, a few days before an interview we had planned, Barnes emailed me to apologise that he was no longer able to make it. When I replied (having no idea what the reason was) suggesting he let me know if things change, I got another email from him, where he politely explained: things will not change.
Perhaps our ideal is closer to “the writer who disdainfully forbade posterity to take any personal interest in him”, as Barnes said of Flaubert almost 30 years ago, than to someone who pours his heart out on the page. This is how we best like our authors. We want them to look away in pictures, the way Flaubert did, “because what he can see over your shoulder is more interesting than your shoulder”; we don’t want them not to smile into the camera, the Man Booker logo in the background. To quote from Flaubert’s Parrot again, “Why does the writing make us chase the writer? Why can’t we leave well alone? Why aren’t the books enough?” They may be enough – as long as they are proper, artfully conceived, literary novels: we want that stuffed parrot from the Museum of Rouen, not this live menagerie kept by Sarah Bernhardt in the rue Fortuny.
It is probably no coincidence that Levels of Life evokes Flaubert’s Parrot in so many ways. At the end of the book, Barnes cites the passage from his 1985 novel that he read at Kavanagh’s funeral: “When she dies, you are not at first surprised. Part of love is preparing for death.” At first he was struck by his own prescience, having created a man in his early 60s, whose emotional state in the aftermath of his wife’s death had an uncanny resemblance to his own; “[o]nly later did novelist’s self-doubt set in: rather than inventing the correct grief for my fictional character, I had merely been predicting my own probable feeling – an easier job.” Some people think that a writer’s magnum opus is his or her life story. Levels of Life proves this to be wrong.
Barnes talks about his thoughts of suicide, which have become less persistent once he saw himself as “the principal rememberer” of his wife. Killing himself would be tantamount to killing her again. This book makes you remember many things – including all Flaubert’s parrots – the author has breathed life into, which in itself is reason enough to keep reading, until you finally reach this: “You need your friends not just as friends, but also as corroborators.” Doesn’t the same apply to readers? And don’t they – we – have a responsibility towards the author who has given us so much? To avoid further generalisations, I’ll speak for myself. Levels of Life has left me with two desires. First, I want to find out which is the worse outcome, your balloon exploding or catching fire. Second, I want to read Barnes’ next book.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anna Aslanyan is a translator and journalist living in London. She regularly contributes to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and writes for the TLS and a number of online publications. Anna’s translations into Russian include works of fiction by Tom McCarthy, Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Mavis Gallant and Zadie Smith.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, April 13th, 2013.