This, a short book in three parts, is as accomplished a work as you’d expect from a long-term, much-awarded novelist such as Julian Barnes. It’s a meditation on flight (ballooning, in particular), photography and grief, and while the first two sections of the book focus on historical figures’ experience of those areas, the final third is about Barnes’ own grief, over the death of his wife.
The first two sections, detailing loves and legs lost in the pursuit of amour and altitude – with a cast including Sarah Bernhardt, Fred Burnaby and Félix Tournachon – are well written but also somewhat disconnected from the final chapter. They fit together well enough, and the lack of a complete mesh is forgivable given that this is writing informed by deep grief, but sometimes the paths from start to end seem a little forced. The turn of phrase are still effortlessly polished; describing his wife’s illness as “37 days from diagnosis to death” is brilliantly economical, indicative of the rapidity with which death can make itself known.
While Barnes’ prose has always come across as effortless – and that doesn’t change here – it’s hard to shake the feeling that this was an incredibly difficult work for him to write. The usual clarity is there, the rueful recitation of life’s little unintended tragedies remains intact, but this time he’s turned inwards. The almost-placid, stable gaze on which his reputation is built now examines his life, or how it is trying to reshape itself after his wife’s death.
Sure, there’s the usual trick of repeating ten-buck words a little much (here it’s ‘uxoriousness’ rather than my old favourite, ‘crepuscular’) but it seems more like the shield of the familiar; while Barnes has always written about the personal, this is the first time that it has been absolutely about his own experience. This is his life – and his wife’s death – on the page. And for all the talk of suicide, the lack of God and the lack of hope, it circles around to an almost Sisyphean endeavour: to keep going. To endure. To last the years though you think each one will be easier than the last, and are surprised when it is not.
There may not be dignity in death, but there’s a quiet dignity here. It’s what, it would seem, keeps Barnes going: yoking history and the personal together to create a story that rises into the air, providing a view – however false – of the sadness below.