The Widower’s Love

Joyce Carol Oates reviews Julian Barnes’ memoir, Levels of Life, about losing his wife of 30 years:

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.” …

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?”.