the work of grief


“ How do you turn catastrophe into art?” This bold question, posed by Julian Barnes in a fabulist exegesis of Géricault’s great painting “The Raft of the Medusa”, in A History of the World in 10½ Chapters (1989), might be said to be answered by his new book, Levels of Life, a memoir of his wife of thirty years, Pat Kavanagh, who died of a brain tumour in 2008. With few of the playful stratagems and indirections of style typical of his fiction, but with something of the baffled elegiac tone of his Booker Prize-winning short novel The Sense of an Ending (2011), Levels of Life conveys an air of stunned candour: “I was thirty-two when we met, sixty-two when she died. The heart of my life; the life of my heart”. The end came swiftly and terribly: “Thirty-seven days from diagnosis to death”. The resulting memoir, a precisely composed, often deeply moving hybrid of non-fiction, “fabulation”, and straightforward reminiscence and contemplation, is a gifted writer’s response to the incomprehensible in a secular culture in which “we are bad at dealing with death, that banal, unique thing; we can no longer make it part of a wider pattern”.

more from Joyce Carol Oates at the TLS here.