When Julian Barnes writes about losing his wife to a brain tumor, he writes instead about the adventures of 18th and 19th century balloonists. It makes for the most unusual kind of memoir — and it highlights how truly difficult it is to express what we’re feeling when one of our loved ones dies.
The loss goes deeper than any words can reach, and that may be why Barnes turns to the early history of ballooning in his forthcoming book “Levels of Life” (Alfred A. Knopf). He’s able to speak of the harrowing experience of losing his wife, Pat Kavanagh, only in terms of something else.
Joyce Carol Oates recently weighed in on the U.K. edition of the book in the TLS. She called its approach and perspective “unorthodox” — but she means it as a compliment. I can’t help but agree. Most memoirs of death and dying sound the same. I think we’ve all lost loved ones, right? If it’s a loss from illness, there’s an existential formula you just can’t escape: symptoms, diagnosis, terror and treatment, slight improvement and hope, sudden decline, death. Grief. Every book about such a loss can’t help but sound the same. The Illness Industry is mercilessly efficient.
I think that’s why Barnes has recorded his own sorrow in such an “unorthodox” vehicle. He avoids the formula. His love for his wife, and the meaning of her loss, deserve more than the typical formula. His pain is still there, between the lines, hovering at the margins. He doesn’t directly confront it for many pages. Still, as we read about the excitement and perils of hot-air ballooning in the pages that precede, we can feel his grief indirectly in passages like this one:
In August 1786 — ballooning’s infancy — a young man dropped to his death in Newcastle from a height of several hundred feet. He was one of those who held the balloon’s restraining ropes; when a gust of wind suddenly shifted the airbag, his companions let go, while he held on and was borne upwards. Then he fell back to earth. As one modern historian puts it: ‘The impact drove his legs into a flower bed as far as his knees, and ruptured his internal organs, which burst out on to the ground.’
I’ll risk saying it — isn’t that how you feel when someone you love dies? Like you’ve been ripped off your feet and driven into the ground? If it were just a book about ballooning’s history, I’d call this a colorful anecdote. In a book about losing his wife, it means so much more. This is also Barnes at his best. Something to pre-order at your neighborhood bookstore for your fall reading.
Also this season…
You can tell from the title that Erica Brown’s “Happier Endings: Overcoming the Fear of Death” (Simon and Schuster) isn’t coming from the same personal sense of loss as Barnes’ book. Instead, what Brown gives us is an excellent overview, a little in the Mary Roach vein, of death and dying in the contemporary world. Bucket lists, ethical wills, cremation or kafn, last words, final forgiveness, suicide and survivors — it’s all here. A scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, Brown capably navigates a myriad number of topics and issues connected with the Great Beyond. The daughter of a Holocaust survivor, Brown marshals a compelling amount of information to illuminate an often gloomy subject. Hence her book’s title. The fact is, she reports, “the grim reaper is not always grim.”
Christian Wiman’s “My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) is about what Wiman, a published poet, thought about after being diagnosed with cancer. His book assembles several essay meditations, full of poetic allusions and excerpts from world literature, on his struggle to understand his faith in the face of his mortality. What he realizes is that faith, true religious faith, is something different from what’s taught in church on Sundays. It’s “tenuous, precarious,” he says. “The minute you begin to speak with certitude about God, he is gone. We praise people for having strong faith, but strength is only one part of that physical metaphor: one also needs flexibility.”
- The difficult bliss of belief: Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss (liturgical.wordpress.com)
- The Final Ramble (meredithlbl.com)