We live on the 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.
Julian Barnes, ‘Levels of Life’.
For Barnes, this was his grief story. A raw and honest piece of writing that details the loss of his wife and soulmate of thirty years. An account of a grief, unflinchingly observed.
How you feel and how you look may or may not be the same. So how do you feel? As if you have dropped from a height of several hundred feet, conscious all the time, have landed feet first in a rose bed with an impact that has driven you in up to the knees, and whose shock has caused your internal organs to rupture and burst forth from your body. This is what it feels like, and why should it look any different?
I do not believe I shall ever see her again. Never see, hear, touch, embrace, listen to, laugh with; never again wait for her footstep, smile at the sound of an opening door, fit her body into mine, mine into hers. Nor do I believe we shall meet in some dematerialised form. I believe dead is dead.
You put 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.
It was thirty seven days from diagnosis to death. I tried never to look away, always to face it: and a kind of crazy lucidity resulted. Most evenings, as I left the hospital, I would find myself staring resentfully at people on buses merely going home at the end of their day. How could they sit there so idly and unknowingly, their indifferent profiles on display, when the world was about to be changed?
Interestingly, Barnes realized that he had already predicted his own probable feelings in such an event, thirty years ago, in one of his novels. He read this particular passage at her funeral.
When she dies, you are not at first surprised. Part of love is preparing for death. You feel confirmed in your love when she dies. You got it right. This is part of it all. Afterwards comes the madness. And then the loneliness: not the spectacular solitude you had anticipated, not the interesting martyrdom of widowhood, but just loneliness. It’s just misery as regular as a job…. [People say] you’ll come out of it…. And you do come out of it, that’s true.
But you don’t come out of it like a train coming out of a tunnel, bursting through the Downs into sunshine and that swift, rattling descent to the Channel; you come out of it as a gull comes out of an oil slick; you are tarred and feathered for life.
A friend wrote to him: ‘The things is – nature is so exact, it hurts exactly as much as it is worth, so in a way one relishes the pain, I think. If it didn’t matter, it wouldn’t matter.’
And that, is precisely what Barnes has managed to present the reader in this slim volume.
We get to see exactly just how much it mattered.