The Most Mysterious Subject

Cathleen Schine reviews Levels of Life by Julian Barnes, in the New York Review of Books:

Schine_1-121913_jpg_250x1634_q85Julian Barnes was married for thirty years to a woman he loved, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh. Levels of Life is an examination of the void she left behind when she died in 2008. The book is short, crisp, measured, and deeply felt. Not a grief memoir so much as a grief meditation, it is divided into three improbable parts: an appealing discussion of ballooning; a touching short story about the fictional romance of a real English adventurer named Fred Burnaby and the celebrated actress Sarah Bernhardt; and a thoughtful consideration of grief. In The Sense of an Ending, his novel that won the Man Booker Prize in 2011, Barnes’s celebrated literary playfulness and skill sometimes came off almost as affectation. The artifice in the new book, in contrast, is essential. Levels of Life is a far stranger and more original work.

It is, not surprisingly, a marvel of flickering Barnesian leitmotifs, none of them subtle, all of them subtly and unexpectedly intertwined. Barnes’s language is even more disciplined than usual. He has managed to tenderly expose the grief of mourning in all its naked, writhing confusion, without exposing himself, something of a miracle of restraint.

More here.