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23 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The heights and the depths, August 1, 2013
This review is from: Levels of Life (Hardcover)
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Julian Barnes is incapable of writing a dull paragraph or a shapeless sentence. This short book puts together three narratives centered on love, on flying, and on the loss of love. Barnes has always been good at delineating emotion, and he does not fail here.

The first two parts, mainly about ballooning with a possibly apocryphal story about Sarah Bernhardt and one of her lovers, are vintage Barnes work. Swift, spare, and fascinating.

The third part is Barnes' grief narrative, about the death of his wife and about his grief. Lots of writers have written beautiful grief narratives - Alan Paton, CS Lewis, Joan Didion and Joyce Carol Oates among them. Each of these writers, while sharing the experience of grieving a spouse, comes up with a work wholly characteristic of themselves and deeply moving. Writers write - that's how they deal with experience. CS Lewis tried to figure out how death and loss fits in with his God, Alan Paton concentrated on the wonderful nature of his wife, Joan Didion on the unbelievability and starkness of grief, and Joyce Carol Oates wrote a very long and discursive day by day account of her grief and gradual recovery, with some guilt thrown in. Characteristic each one of them.

Griefs are similar (the world indifferent to the tragedy, the misery of life without the loved one, the unfamiliarity of familiar experiences, the inability to tell stories to the loved one, the unfairness and unfathomability of it all) but personal as well. Just as his predecessors were true to their writerly selves, Barnes is his usual spare, perfectly phrased and devastating self in this book.

If you've lost a spouse you'll recognize his experience and enjoy his superb way of describing it. If not, take this as a report from a country you may well visit someday. Worth reading in either case, with the bonus pleasure of figuring out how the first two narratives connect to the third.
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Sep 2, 2013 4:45:05 AM PDT
I love how you relate this to other books on grieving that have become modern classics. At the end, you talk of figuring how how the first two sections fit in, but don't give your own opinion. To me, they are absolutely essential to the whole, and his portrait of his wife (mainly n terms of the holes she has left in his heart) would not have been complete without the persistence of the positive images from the earlier sections. It is hard to develop this in a review, though; I know, because I have just tried.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 2, 2013 7:50:54 AM PDT
Thanks - I thought about saying more on the connections and gave up. An astute reader really can figure it out, so why take the pleasure away from such a reader? And, as you say, it is hard to fit into a brief review.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 2, 2013 8:00:48 AM PDT
Why? Because there are two quite daring things about this book. One, as we both agree, is the searing personal honesty of his grief. The other is the extraordinary way that Barnes manages to make a tissue of apparently peripheral historical allusions connect to the heart of the here and now. I think we agree on this too, but whereas other writers have written about grief, Barnes is quite unique in attempting this off-center approach, and for many readers it would be a selling point. Roger.
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