Heights and Depths
By Julian Barnes
“You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed.” That is how the book begins. And the three essays in Barnes’s Levels of Life is a demonstration of how magic can be created by the juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated things.
The first one The Sin of Height is about ballooning in the 19th century - specifically about the pioneer Felix Tournachon (Nadar) who combines his twin passions of ballooning and photography to attempt aerial photography, an attempt that ultimately leads a century later to the Apollo 8 mission’s photograph of the earth from space. While describing Nadar’s experiments and successes, Barnes also points out his touching devotion to his ailing wife. The topic of love, which is again, in some way a joining of two unrelated beings, is the subject in Barnes’s next essay On the Level.
On the Level is about an imaginary love affair between Sarah Bernhardt, the legendary French actress and the English adventurer and soldier Fred Burnaby. Both are extremely unconventional, bohemian. They fall for each other. And it leads Fred to propose the unthinkable - an actual marriage. He is of course, refused. Sarah Bernhardt explains, “I am constantly in search of new sensations, new emotions….My heart desires more excitement than anyone…any one person… can give.” Fred is heartbroken in a way he has never experienced before; and though he does marry, he carries the hurt until his death in a battle at Khartoum. As Barnes observes in the beginning, “Every love story is a grief story. If not at first, then later. If not for one, then for the other. Sometimes for both.”
And that observation brings us to the third and best essay of all - The Loss of Depth. A deeply personal essay, Barnes writes about his losing his wife after 30 years of marriage. He is grief stricken and he explores the experience of his own grief in the months and years after the death. It proves to be a powerful and incredibly moving exposition on the nature of grief and mourning. For someone who does not believe in an afterlife (“I believe dead is dead.”), there is little to console, little to hope for - “It’s just the universe doing its stuff.” Barnes writes about his anger at friends who skirt the issue of his wife’s death, who are uncomfortable talking about her or his grief with him. He writes about the note his wife left him, a note that in some way consoles him - “The thing 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.” He writes about contemplating suicide, about planning for it. And about how he gets that thought out of his mind - the awareness that if he was dead, she was even more dead - since she now lived most vividly in his memory. He writes about time not being a great healer - “ Grief is the negative image of love; and if there can be an accumulation of love over the years, then why not of grief?” He writes about the consolation of pain, about almost relishing it - “ Pain shows that you have not forgotten; pain enhances the flavour of memory; pain is a proof of love.” And then “the final tormenting, unanswerable question: what is ‘success’ in mourning? Does it lie in remembering or in forgetting? A staying still or moving on? Or some combination of both?”The Loss of Depth is gut-wrenching. For anyone who has ever experienced this kind of mind-numbing grief, this is a must read. As it is for anyone who hasn’t. As Barnes himself puts it so succinctly - “Early in life, the world divides crudely into those who have had sex and those who haven’t. Later, into those who have known love, and those who haven’t. Later still - at least, if we are lucky (or, on the other hand, unlucky) - it divides into those who have endured grief, and those who haven’t. These divisions are absolute; they are tropics we cross”