It is almost five years since Pat Kavanagh, the literary agent, died of a brain tumour. In that time, Julian Barnes, her husband of 30 years, has published three books: a collection of short stories, a collection of essays on the influence of other writers and a novel, The Sense of an Ending, which won the Booker prize in 2011.
His new book, Levels of Life, is another hybrid; part essay, part short story and part memoir, the latter of which will generate by far the most interest, as memoirs of the well known in turmoil will do. But it is a mistake to see the book as anything other than whole: an effort by Barnes, using everything he has, to look down on the landscape of loss.
Barnes is at his home in north London. “Grief,” he says, “seems at first to destroy not just all patterns, but also to destroy a belief that a pattern exists.” This changes with the altitude of years. So now here is the pattern and it is extraordinary.
It is important to understand what Levels of Life is not, as well as what it is: it is not a book about the author’s late wife (Pat was my good friend and agent for 10 years), an intensely private person who hated to see her name in print – so much so that Barnes, in the section describing his own grief, never uses her name. She appears, more resonantly, in the dedication and there’s a picture of her on the back of the jacket, next to one of her husband.