The Tropics We Cross

Julian Barnes and His Late Wife, Pat Kavanagh

Julian Barnes and His Late Wife, Pat Kavanagh

Little did I think when the read the first few pages of Levels of Life by Julian Barnes that, before long, I would be immersed in an essay about the grief of losing one’s wife. I can quote the paragraph where the book, quite suddenly, more than halfway through, changes gears:

Early in life, the world divides crudely into those who have had sex and those who haven’t. Later, into those who have known love, and those who haven’t. Later still—at least if we are lucky (or, on the other hand, unlucky)—it divides into those who have endured grief, and those who haven’t. These divisions are absolute; they are tropics we cross.

The book began as a kind of essay on lighter-than-air ballooning, with an interesting sidelight on photography. Then, in he second section, we meet Captain Fred Burnaby, an avid balloonist, who falls in love with the French actress Sarah Bernhardt. But it is not to be, she rejects him by simply switching partners, and he goes on to marry a young woman who becomes ill and must spend the rest of her life in a sanatorium in the Alps for consumptives. He later fights with Gordon in Khartoum, and dies of a spear thrust at the Battle of Abu Klea.

Early in the third and last section, Barnes tells us what the book is really about: namely, what happens to his life when his wife of thirty years, Pat Kavanagh, dies of cancer, leaving her husband to realize that there is no simple and sure-fire way of dealing with protracted grief:

Love may not lead where we think or hope, but regardless of outcome it should be a call to seriousness and truth. If it is not that—if it is not moral in its effect—then love is no more than an exaggerated form of pleasure. Whereas grief, love’s opposite, does not seem to occupy a moral space. The defensive, curled position it forces us into if we are to survive makes us more selfish. It is not a place of upper air; there are no views. You can no longer hear yourself living.

I have often wondered what would happen to me if I should lose Martine. I see myself on a long journey, taking interminable bus rides in Patagonia perhaps, where the outer desolation would mirror my own insides. Or else, I would not. It is possible I would live the rest of my life as an unfinished conversation with my departed little French girl that continues despite strange looks from my friends. Who knows?

In the meantime, I will try to live while I can. It’s a mistake not to.