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Book Review

Levels of Life by Julian Barnes

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Publisher: Jonathan Cape, hardback

1 of 1 The Man Booker Prize winning author's new book is partly a memoir of his late wife Pat Kavanagh.
The Man Booker Prize winning author's new book is partly a memoir of his late wife Pat Kavanagh.

Julian Barnes – who won the Man Booker Prize in 2011 for The Sense of an Ending - was married for 30 years to the South-African born literary agent Pat Kavanagh. Aged 68, his wife died on October 20, 2008, after suffering a brain tumour.

In an era when so much negative, self-serving stuff is churned about, concerning fighting your corner and egoism within marriage, it is both touching and encouraging to read Barnes’ elegant, considered reflections on the intimacies of his life with Pat.

There is nothing mawkish or overly gloomy about Barnes’s account, yet such is the pressure of his testimony, as it were, that you genuinely feel that a cruel blow severed two people who so loved each other’s company, on walking holidays in France and Italy, or at home in North London, ribbing each other with in-jokes that only they could understand.

The author is haunted by dreams that his wife is still alive, but he must deal with the reality that she is no longer with him in body. He wakes up to brutal, forlorn days of bereavement, witnesses mutual friends unable to say the right thing - or even anything - by way of acknowledgment or small consolation.

Used to going places with Pat prior to her demise, the author experiences what he calls “foyer terror” in theatres. Eventually he is able to go to a first night again, accompanied by a thoughtful friend.

The 118-page book is not entirely a memoir about their marriage and his bereavement, which is documented in the final sequence. Barnes comes at the kernel of the book sidelong, as it were. In the first part of what is a tri-partite structure, he spiritedly investigates the adventures of early balloonists in the 18th and 19th centuries. The second part describes the love affair between the actress Sarah Bernhardt ( 1844-1923) and the balloonist Colonel Fred Burnaby (1842-1885). Bernhardt spurned this kindly man after their intense few months together.

Barnes is such an imaginative writer, that the business of flight and being above the world with confidence in the nineteenth century somehow governs and validates his marriage to Pat on the ground below in his contemporary field-of-vision. In the business of balloonatics, he finds significant echo and metaphorical aptness for his own experiences.

Despite the sadness and disorientation explored, partcularly in the ultimate sequence, there is an airy quality - dare one say it- and a sense of adventure, rhythm and balance about Barnes' masterful enterprise.

Paddy Kehoe

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