Review Essay on Levels of Life" by Julian Barnes

"You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed" (p. 3). These two opening sentences announce the central theme of Levels of Life -- a book about self-transcendence, love, and devastating loss.

The friend who gave me the book knew that I had been investigating and writing about the phenomenology of traumatic loss since the death of my late wife in February of 1991 shattered my world ( ), and he believed that the book would strike a deep chord in me. He was right.

The book is an artful blend of interesting historical fact, fictional narrative, and personal phenomenology, culminating in Barnes's grippingly rich description of his own prolonged, agonizing grief-strickenness.

The theme of self-transcendence and its perils, of Icarian ascension and the tragedy of falling, is introduced early in the first section, "The Sin of Height," in the form of the expansive aeronautical adventures of balloonists Fred Burnaby and Felix Tournachon (later, Nadar) and actress Sarah Bernhardt. Barnes employs evocative aeronautical metaphors skillfully throughout the remainder of the book.

In the second section, "On the Level," self-transcendence through ascension gives way to self-transcendence through love, along with its perils:

"You put together two people who have not been put together before; and sometimes the world is changed, sometimes not. They may crash and burn, or burn and crash. But sometimes, something new is made, and then the world is changed" (p. 34).

"We live on the flat, on the level, and yet -- and so -- we aspire. Groundlings, we can sometimes reach as far as the gods. Some soar with art, others with religion; most with love. But when we soar, we can also crash. There are few soft landings.... Every love story is a potential grief story" (p. 39, emphasis added). The bulk of this second section is taken up by the moving love and grief story of Fred Burnaby's ill-fated love of Sarah Bernhardt and his prolonged agony upon losing her -- foreshadowings of Barnes's own personal tragedy.

"You put together two people who have not been put together before. Sometimes it is like that first [disastrous] attempt to harness a hydrogen balloon to a fire balloon; do you prefer crash and burn, or burn and crash? But sometimes it works, and something new is made, and the world is changed. 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" (p. 73). So begins the third and final section, "The Loss of Depth," which brings the book to the heart of its matter -- Barnes's own broken heart.

Barnes and his wife, Pat Kavanagh, were together for 30 years, until she died 37 days after she was diagnosed. He describes her as the "heart of my life; the life of my heart." His rich, compelling description of the phenomenology of his agonizing grief-strickenness is unsurpassed by anything I have encountered in the psychological and psychoanalytic literature. His powerful account reflects his unyielding determination to be firmly grounded in his unending experience of traumatic loss, undeterred by reassuring platitudes, evasive euphemisms, or recommended distractions, for all of which he has absolutely no patience.

In the course of describing his experience of grief, Barnes fleshes out in excruciating detail how traumatic loss entails the collapse of one's world, a reconfiguring of time and space, a sense of profound estrangement from those who are not grief-stricken, and the dread of a second loss that impends with the passage of time -- the fading of memory of the lost beloved. I found in Barnes what I call a sibling in the same darkness (Stolorow, 2007), and I think others among the grief-stricken will find something similar in him. I recommend Levels of Life to anyone who wishes to have a better understanding of traumatic bereavement.


Stolorow, R. D. (2007). Trauma and Human Existence. New York: Routledge. Link: Link:

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