Saturday, September 20, 2014

"Levels of Life"

This short book by Julian Barnes is a study of grief, his grief over his wife's untimely death, and a study of life and its uncertainty.  This does not sound like an easy topic, but in this unusual book it is at times lighter than air.

The first chapter is an apparent true story of balloonists in 1860's, eccentric explorers and risk takers who wanted to see and photograph the world from a different perspective.  These aeronauts were encouraged by the intelligentsia like Jules Verne and Victor Hugo, George Sand and Alexandre Dumas, and joined by the peripatetic actress Sarah Bernhardt.  The second chapter is an account of a love affair between Bernhardt and an English soldier and trekker of the world that ends in disappointment for the well meaning and dashing Brit.

These two chapters set a somewhat unlikely stage for the final chapter, "The Loss of Depth", which describes the process of mourning and grief that Barnes' experiences.  It begins with this paragraph, "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?  But sometimes it works, and something new is made, and the world is changed.  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."

What follows in this third chapter is an array of thoughts that developed over four years or more, despairing and persevering.  As time lets "the universe do its stuff', grief shifts.  "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."

This is a valuable, thoughtful, and on the surface a simple book of reflection.  It is cause for reflection here even now.

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