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Barnes pens precise memoir of mourning

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Writers are always interested in death. But for writers in their 60s, the subject takes on a sudden sharp outline.

Take Englishman Julian Barnes. In his 2008 memoir, Nothing to be Frightened Of, he writes about burying his parents and facing his own mortality. His Booker Prize-winning novel The Sense of an Ending (2011), follows an aging man as he examines his uneasy past, searching for a conclusion before that final conclusion comes.

The 67-year-old Barnes now offers a brief and precise memoir of mourning, joining Joan Didion and Joyce Carol Oates in what will probably be a growing genre.

In 2008, Barnes' wife of 29 years died, only 37 days after a cancer diagnosis. "The heart of my life; the life of my heart," he calls her.

At first, he seems to be writing around his terrible loss. Levels of Life is a hybrid work, which mixes autobiography, history and literary fiction. Like many of Barnes' books, it has a three-part structure.

Barnes connects the sections with metaphors involving height and depth, ascension and sudden fatal falls, all coming back to a central idea. "You put two things together that have not been put together before," Barnes writes. "And the world is changed."

He's thinking about love and art, but he begins with an unexpected and appealingly odd example. Barnes delves into the 19th-century mania for hot air ballooning, particularly the work of Felix Tournachon, popularly known as Nadar, who combined balloons and cameras to pioneer aerial photography and open up a new vision of the modern world.

Barnes, who lives in London but often writes about France, also brings in two real-life ballooning enthusiasts, Fred Burnaby, a beef-eating British army man, and the extravagantly dramatic French actress Sarah Bernhardt. The second section is a fictionalized imagining of a love affair between the two, in which Burnaby crashes to earth.

In the final section, Barnes braces to speak of the death of his wife. Barnes never uses her name -- only the dustjacket identifies her as Pat Kavanagh, the literary agent -- but we do get quick glints of her personality. Mostly, we see her through the shape of his grief.

It's a grief that still turns to anger, particularly in Barnes' bitter indictment of our culture's discomfort with death. He's unsparing about euphemisms -- he particularly hates the term "passing" -- and he scorns friends who said the wrong thing or, even worse, said nothing at all.

He crisply rejects many of the standard comforts, not just religious belief but also the Nietzschean notion that suffering makes us stronger. His best consolation comes from a woman friend whose husband has died. "It hurts exactly as much as it is worth," she tells him, "so in a way one relishes the pain."

After great pain, a formal feeling comes, as Emily Dickinson wrote, and there is something very reserved, very English, about Barnes' controlled tone. He speaks about his feelings with spiny specificity but also sets very private parameters. Levels of Life can be intimate, but it is never confessional.

And while stringently unsentimental, the book is not without hope. It's not so much that Barnes writes about mourning: The act of writing is itself a form of mourning. And that's his way forward.

Winnipeg journalist Alison Gillmor writes on pop culture for the Free Press.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 20, 2013 J9

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