Spoiler Alert!!!!! Oates给Barnes这本新书写的书评，感觉Barnes是在给自己丧妻后的低迷做辩护，说道他丧妻，我想大概严重地改变了他的风格，不知是福是祸。
By Joyce Carol Oates
How do you turn catastrophe into art?” This bold question, posed by Julian Barnes in a fabulist exegesis of Géricault’s great painting “The Raft of the Medusa”, in A History of the World in 10½ Chapters (1989), might be said to be answered by his new book, Levels of Life, a memoir of his wife of thirty years, Pat Kavanagh, who died of a brain tumour in 2008. With few of the playful stratagems and indirections of style typical of his fiction, but with something of the baffled elegiac tone of his Booker Prize-winning short novel The Sense of an Ending (2011), Levels of Life conveys an air of stunned candour: “I was thirty-two when we met, sixty-two when she died. The heart of my life; the life of my heart”. The end came swiftly and terribly: “Thirty-seven days from diagnosis to death”. The resulting memoir, a precisely composed, often deeply moving hybrid of non-fiction, “fabulation”, and straightforward reminiscence and contemplation, is a gifted writer’s response to the incomprehensible in a secular culture in which “we are bad at dealing with death, that banal, unique thing; we can no longer make it part of a wider pattern”.
This memoir is a gifted writer’s response to the incomprehensible in a secular culture
Levels of Life is a not quite adequate title for this highly personal and at times richly detailed book, implying an air of lofty contemplation from which the vividness of actual life has departed. Barnes quotes E. M. Forster: “One death may explain itself, but it throws no light upon another” – yet Levels of Life suggests that a single death, if examined from a singular perspective, may throw a good deal of light on the universal experiences of loss, grief, mourning, and what Barnes calls “the question of loneliness”. “I already know that only the old words would do: death, grief, sorrow, sadness, heartbreak. Nothing modernly evasive or medicalising. Grief is a human, not a medical, condition.” The epiphany – or rather one of the epiphanies, for Levels of Life contains many striking, insightful aphorisms – towards which the memoir moves is the remark of a bereaved friend: “Nature is so exact, it hurts exactly as much as it is worth, so in a way one relishes the pain . . . . If it didn’t matter, it wouldn’t matter”. In the more intimate passages here, Barnes would seem to be making the tacit point that the creation of art is inadequate to compensate for such loss.
“You put together two people who have not been put together before . . . . 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.”
Like Barnes’s characteristic works of fiction, Levels of Life is unorthodox in structure and perspective. That it is a widower’s memoir is not evident until page sixty-eight, in a section titled “Loss of Depth”, in which the author speaks for the first time of his grief for his deceased wife, which has scarcely lessened in the several years since her death. Preceding this section are two shorter, self-contained prose pieces evoking the ebullient era of hot-air ballooning that suggest, in retrospect, something of the airy elation, transcendence and terrible risk that falling in love entails.
Like Barnes’s characteristic works of fiction, Levels of Life is unorthodox in structure and perspective
The first section, titled “The Sin of Height”, presents a sequence of sparkily wrought vignettes about such nineteenth-century ballooning enthusiasts as Colonel Fred Burnaby, Felix Tournachon/“Nadar”, the Godard brothers and the actress Sarah Bernhardt (whose connection with ballooning is relatively slight and opportunist). Barnes writes of these extravagantly fearless balloonists with the panache of the affably omniscient narrator of Flaubert’s Parrot (1984) and of the quasi-historian of A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, condensing what is surely a complex history into less than seventy pages. “Aeronauts were the new Argonauts, their adventures instantly chronicled.” In this dazzling new era, ballooning represented “freedom” as well as danger, and a sort of “universal brotherhood” as, it was believed, at least at the time, “a balloon brought no evil”. Naturally, there was a reverse sentiment, that flying violates a natural law and is therefore a sin: “To mess with flight was to mess with God. It was to prove a long struggle, full of instructive lessons”.
Barnes has researched the history of hot-air ballooning, with an eye for the poetic and the exemplary, and it is only on a second reading that much in the early sections acquires a symbolic significance. There are beautifully appropriate passages taken from balloonists’ memoirs, for example the remarks of the physicist Dr J. A. C. Charles (the first person to go up in a hydrogen balloon, in 1783): “When I felt myself escaping from the earth, my reaction was not pleasure but happiness . . . . I could hear myself living, so to speak”. The flamboyant Colonel Burnaby is moved to a “moral feeling”. Sarah Bernhardt sees ballooning as a natural equivalent to her “dreamy nature”; she discovers that above the clouds there is “not silence, but the shadow of silence . . . . [The balloon] is the emblem of uttermost freedom”. Nadar, one of the great photographers of his time as well as a pioneering balloonist, describes “the silent immensities of welcoming and beneficent space, where man cannot be reached by any human force or by any power of evil, and where he feels himself alive as if for the first time”. Yet there is always the possibility – if one persists, the probability – of catastrophe and sudden death. Barnes appropriates for himself, as an expression of the pain that is “exactly what it is worth”, the image of one young balloonist who, in 1786, died in a fall so powerful that “the impact drove his legs into a flower bed as far as his knees, and ruptured his internal organs, which burst out on to the ground”.
It would seem to be with some relief, and a good deal of feeling, that Barnes finally speaks in his own voice
The second section of Levels of Life is aptly titled “On the Level”: “We live on the flat, on the level, and yet – and so – we aspire . . . . Some soar with art, others with religion; most with love. But when we soar, we can also crash . . . . Every love story is a potential grief story”. Here is an imagined three-month romance between two radically unalike individuals: Colonel Burnaby and Sarah Bernhardt. Though begun in innocent fascination on both sides, it is a cruelly uneven relationship between a celebrated actress notorious for sleeping with her leading men and a physically awkward, heavily built and conventional man. Burnaby falls in love with the petite, ethereal Sarah “hook, line and sinker”. He proposes marriage, and Sarah responds languidly, “I am made for sensation, for pleasure, for the moment. I am constantly in search of new sensations, new emotions . . . . My heart desires more excitement than anyone – any one person – can give”. Burnaby is devastated, but survives; he enters into a short-lived marriage with another, presumably less enchanting woman, returns to ballooning, and is killed in an illicit expedition at Khartoum in 1885. The reader comes to see, belatedly, that the fictitious romance between Burnaby and Sarah Bernhardt is analogous to the romance between Julian Barnes and his wife Pat Kavanagh; Burnaby doesn’t outlive Sarah Bernhardt, but his loss of her is as traumatic as a widower’s loss: “The pain was to last several years. He eased it by travelling and skirmishing. He never talked about it. If someone inquired into his black mood, he would reply that the melancholy of the padge-owl was afflicting him”.
It would seem to be with some relief, and a good deal of feeling, that Barnes finally speaks in his own voice in the third section of the memoir. Grief is the great human leveller. The remainder of Levels of Life is a journal of a kind, not so much of the events of a life as of its interior contours. Barnes identifies himself as a former lexicographer, a “descriptivist rather than a prescriptivist”, whose subject in this case is himself. (Levels of Life is notable as a memoir of loss in which there is no portrait of the deceased.) He is relentless in self-analysis, exacting to the point of obsession in exposing the rawness of his grief. “We grieve in character. That . . . seems obvious, but this is a time when nothing seems or feels obvious.” The reader senses a conflict between the desire to speak and a stoic reticence in the effort of what Barnes calls “grief-work”. Well-intentioned friends suggest that he acquire a dog – “I would reply sarcastically that this did not seem much of a substitute for a wife”. A couple suggests that he rent a flat in Paris for six months, or a beach cabin in Guadeloupe; the couple could look after Barnes’s house in his absence, and “We’d have a garden for Freddie” (Freddie being the couple’s dog).
Barnes is eloquent on the myopia of grief, noting his anger at the reactions of others: “Since the griefstruck rarely know what they need or want, only what they don’t, offence-giving and offence-taking are common. Some friends are as scared of grief as they are of death; they avoid you as if they fear infection. Some, without knowing it, half expect you to do their mourning for them”. There is the bright, asinine query, barely a week after the funeral: “So, what are you up to? Are you going on walking holidays?”. Others shy away from even speaking of Pat Kavanagh, though they had been friends of hers for years. Barnes calls them the Silent Ones:
Levels of Life is notable as a memoir of loss in which there is no portrait of the deceased
“I remember a dinner conversation in a restaurant with three married friends . . . . Each had known her for many years . . . . I mentioned her name; no one picked it up. I did it again, and again nothing. Perhaps the third time I was deliberately trying to provoke . . . . Afraid to touch her name, they denied her thrice, and I thought the worse of them for it.”
Barnes imagines that these individuals might be wanting to say: “Your grief is an embarrassment. We’re just waiting for it to pass. And, by the way, you’re less interesting without her”. Another widower infuriates Barnes by remarking infelicitously that he’d “lost his wife to cancer” – “another phrase that jarred: compare ‘We lost our dog to gypsies’”. After a while, solicitous individuals begin to suggest that Barnes find another woman companion, remarry: “Have you found someone?”. He notes that, statistically, “those who have been happy in marriage remarry much sooner than those who have not: often within six months” – a fact, if it is a fact, that “shocks” him with its perfect synthesis of logic and illogic.
Suicide is pondered, not impulsively but rationally, even dutifully, over a period of years: “If I cannot live without her, if my life is reduced to mere passive continuance, I shall become active. I knew soon my preferred method – a hot bath, a glass of wine next to the taps, and an exceptionally sharp Japanese carving knife”. Yet, sensibly, the widower realizes that if he were to die, the most intimate recollections of the loved one would die with him: “I could not kill myself because then I would be killing her”. The question is then, for the survivor, how to live? As if one were a balloonist high in the air, imperilled by the wind currents, at times becalmed, perplexed. Barnes discovers in himself a sudden love of opera, where previously he hadn’t cared for this “least comprehensible” of art forms; now, in the rawness of grief, he sees how “opera cuts to the chase – as death does”. Here is an art not fearful of grandiloquence and overstatement: “an art in which violent, overwhelming, hysterical and destructive emotion was the norm; an art which seeks, more obviously than any other form, to break your heart. Here was my new social realism”. Levels of Life might have been amplified by more of these unexpectedly uplifting passages, like those in which Barnes remarks that he talks “constantly” to his deceased wife, as Ivy-Compton Burnett reputedly talked to her long-deceased companion, even in the presence of others: “The paradox of grief: if I have survived what is now four years of her absence, it is because I have had four years of her presence”.
In less secular, more traditional cultures, the grieving after death is ritualized
Another paradox is that “grief is the negative image of love; and if there can be accumulation of love over the years, then why not of grief?”. Barnes quotes with approval Marianne Moore’s gnomic remark: “The cure for loneliness is solitude”. He says little in these pages about the roles of others – relatives, friends and acquaintances – to help alleviate grief. Perhaps, in his case, these have been of minimal help. The Silent Ones are the more reprehensible in his eyes for not aiding in the recall of the deceased wife, yet they are precious as a means of “corroboration”: “You need them to tell you that what you once were – the two of you – was seen. Not just known from within”.
Barnes has little faith in the power of one’s will to guide, if not control, the waywardness of emotion. In less secular, more traditional cultures, the grieving after death is ritualized; no individual has to invent for himself a way of mourning, at least externally. Death is an occasion – frequent, if still shocking – in the social fabric, not an aberration in private life. As he lives in a secular, urban, intellectual milieu, Julian Barnes presents himself as essentially adrift and unmoored, and stoically so; his grieving is passionate but narrow. He defines himself proudly beyond the range of understanding that a widow or widower might wish to make others happy, granted their own, inward unhappiness; that one might find a temporary way out of the “solipsism of grief” by taking on the grief of another or even, ludicrous as it might seem, acquiring a dog or a cat not for the sake of actually alleviating one’s own grief, but for the animal’s sake.
Levels of Life ends on a tentatively hopeful note – not optimistic, but rueful. “There is a German word, Sehnsucht, which has no English equivalent; it means ‘the longing for something.’” This is the obverse of the widower’s more particularized loneliness, which is the “absence of a very specific someone”. The final, perfectly honed lines of the memoir suggest the balloonist’s quasi-mystic, Romantic expectation: “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?”.