Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: 45 Years 

Emily Bronte’s singular novel, Wuthering Heights, begins its telling of a tumultuous love story by ensuring that the romance is dead on arrival. In Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years, the marriage is similarly mordant, yet ground in a spectreless rural reality, the death arrives in epistolary form: Geoff Mercer (Tom Courtenay) receives a letter informing him that the corpse of Katya, his first love, has been unearthed on a melting glacier in Switzerland. His wife Kate (Charlotte Rampling), possessed of an obsidian composure, is the one who must navigate the brittle nature of the relationship away from maelstrom as the week stretches forth towards the party – the event to celebrate Geoff and Kate’s 45th wedding anniversary, postponed five years due to Geoff’s emergency bypass surgery. The film finds its Woolfian essence in a superficial rotation of events around the party, yet like Mrs Dalloway, which so tries to preoccupy itself with novelties such as flower buying, the fractures of psychological torment are ultimately unavoidable.


45 Years is a film which holds its power in subtleties – the progressive crumbling of foundations and the established certainties of marriage. The pensive sadness is reflected in the coloration of the scenes: a blurring of juniper green and teal, complemented by the dark canals and flat marshes of the Norfolk Broads. This is the dissolution of a partnership in a very English way; the reluctance of conversation, jilted encounters in tea rooms, silent bathtub breakdowns, but most of all the pretence, the continued pretence, the obsessively perfected facade captured most memorably in a line of Kate’s: “it’s one thing me knowing that I wasn’t enough for you. It’s quite another to have everyone else knowing that too.” The Mercers are scrupulous in their avoidance of the issue, coming closest to the acknowledgement of their marital breakdown in a suggestively metaphorical conversation about climate change and the fissures in a Swiss glacier.


Although Courtenay is remarkable, bringing a laconic, stoic presence to Geoff’s unremitting selfishness, it is by Rampling and her hooded eyed melancholy that we are continually captivated. This is Geoff’s mistake, but it is Kate’s story: through her silent breakdowns, her self-instilled stoicism, we witness the falling apart of a marriage. 45 Years never really answers the questions that it poses (can we ever, even after over four decades, guarantee that we chose to spend our life with the right person? And what do we do when we realise we were never quite enough for someone?) but it doesn’t seem to matter, because some questions will always be unanswerable, as dictated by the human condition, and Haigh’s film is effortlessly beautiful, in its silence and its pensiveness.

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You Still Get Zero: Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis 

O do not let time deceive you, 

You cannot conquer time. 

 W.H Auden 

It has always been part of the human condition to feel obsessed, even dwarfed, by the temporal. Think of Eliot’s self-indulgent J.Alfred Prufrock, clawing through the verses with a brittle desperation to reassure himself, the reader, anyone, that there is “time yet for a hundred indecisions.” We unwittingly admired Joyce and Woolf, not only for their unconventional torrent of language, but because they dared to bend the constraints of time  – a party, an old lover, the wreck of a marriage, a fractured psychological state, all in one day; so too Stephen Dedalus cast off the grief from his mother and found a substitute father in Leopold Bloom, a day of meat – both human and offal, a day of alcohol and repulsive basal instinct, a day of realisation and the repairing of relations between husband and wife. Woolf and Joyce achieved this control of temporal dimension by cheating, of course, what the day brings in each is a culmination of a chain of previous days, the intertwining of lives and the realisation of previous, unrecorded happenings. Humans are fascinated by the very thing they cannot control: the Existentialists viewed time as an endless, meaningless stretch until the cessation of being; filmmakers have tried to mould it around their narrative (Tarantino’s non-linear chronology in Pulp Fiction provoked fascination, and who watched La Haine in its entirety without realising that Vinz has been shot before the film even begins; leaving Said to relive the events of the previous day?) It is Martin Amis, however, with his fascination for atrocity, for repugnance, for the blackly comic, that courageously and contrivedly launched the arrow of time in the opposite direction.


Following the inverted nature of the novel, it is not until the Afterword that Amis reveals the roots of Time’s Arrow. The title had been previously considered, before the more geographically apt London Fields was chosen, and it was almost discarded again in favour of a phrase of Primo Levi’s: The Nature of The Offense. Amis hints – and the reader senses – that Levi’s suicide, described by Amis as “an act of ironic heroism”, underpins much of Time’s Arrow. Within the Afterword, Amis deftly summarises the paradox of Levi’s death by the defiance of phrasing: “my life is mine and mine alone to take.” Suicide, as noted by Frank Kermode, is “impossible” in a world set firmly in reverse, yet for Levi, and many other victims of the Holocaust, it was a fervent grasp for the last and only available human right, to die on one’s own terms rather than to have it snatched from you in a pugilistic and dictatorial fashion.


Before Auschwitz, there is death, and afterwards, there is birth. The chapters at Auschwitz, into which we unexpectedly regress, are the only ones in the novel which make sense, temporally. This was intentional by Amis – to isolate the happenings at the camp in a novel of vertigo-inducing backwardness, where raping heals rather than harms, tumours are placed in organs and the Jews have gold inserted into their mouths rather than removed – as a sort of “tribute to perverted perfection, 100 percent wrong.” The Auschwitz created by Amis is somehow worse: it pulls us backward through the events, awarding the reader a terrible, fretful omniscience as Odilo Unverboren, our protagonist yet simultaneously not our protagonist, “dreams Jews down from the heavens.” This Auschwitz, with awakened corpses and deliveries of human hair, is less clinical, less perfect in nature than the original, but altogether more sinister. In reality, the past can never be physically relived, but Amis, in his frantic untying of the knots of time, forces us to do just that.


Before Auschwitz, there is death, and this is when we first meet Tod Friendly. He has just awoken from his cessation, “I moved forward, out of the blackest of sleep.” Tod is filled with self-loathing: he is repulsed by his death ridden body, his rapidly declining relationships with women “I was both omnipotent and impotent – powerful and powerless” and even his churchgoing habits, within a reversed chronology, are oleaginous in nature – he takes the money from the collection box. However, we never hear from Tod, or Odilo, as he undertakes his doctoral duties with vile, clinical precision. The voice we hear appears to be an estranged conscience, confirmed by Amis: “the soul he should have had, who came at the wrong time, after it was all too late.” This is a dreadfully bleak insight into those of the Third Reich, possessed as they were of an eerily sterile, robotic nature towards their duty.


And so we regress, through Vietnam and Korea, Auschwitz and World War II, until we reach the novel’s ending, or paradoxically its beginning, with Tod’s birth. The interlinking of the moment of conception and the commencement of waiting for the surety of extinction is, like everything else in the novel, something from which we wish to hide; an incomprehensible facet of the truth. There is the same artifice of innocence at the end of Time’s Arrow as at the beginning, yet this time Amis does not shield the reader: we understand that the baby is a poisonous presence, compared to “a bomb.” If the novel were read backwards, it would certainly not carry the same tumultuous power: events somehow seem more vivid, more terrible, more true, when observed in reverse. The nature of Time’s Arrow is summarised by Amis in a throwaway simile: “Maybe love will be like driving. When people move – when they travel – they look where they’ve come from, not where they’re going.”


Martin Amis has long been fascinated by the Holocaust, once tracing the origins of the moral collapse of modern society to The Third Reich and the Soviet gulags. Since Time’s Arrow’s publication in 1991, he has returned to the wrought iron gates of Auschwitz in The Zone of Interest. When questioned about his preoccupation with Hitler, Amis has declared his allure to be in his “impenetrability”, and indeed, no Historian has ever been able to unravel the motivation of the Holocaust. A chapter in Time’s Arrow begins with stating that “if you multiply zero, or anything, by zero, you still get zero.” This, one feels, is Amis’ own concession in attempting to deconstruct the Hitler myth: whichever theory or idea is offered on the matter, it is never quite plausible: you still get zero.

The Art of Losing: Blue Nights and Oblivion

The art of losing isn’t hard to master, so wrote Elizabeth Bishop in her poem, One Art. It’s almost wistful in its conclusion, reminiscent of Julian Barnes’ morose acquiescence in Levels of Life – “there are no soft landings.”  – yet the gentle parodying of emotion, the repetition of disaster, was softly orchestrated by a woman who was no stranger to having loved and lost. Firstly, as a child, Bishop lost her mother to the most incomprehensible of declines: mental illness, but it was in losing her maternal grandparents that she first found herself in the grip of isolation. The poem comes close to revealing the permanence of the impression of grief on the human form, but is brushed off by Bishop with a firm desire to overcome it: so many things seem filled with the intent to be lost that their loss is no disaster. 

The pragmatism of Elizabeth Bishop was later to be found in the echoes of Irish writer Josephine Hart, who spoke of the knowledge that such things (grief and loss) “can be survived.” Hart’s steely blue eyes and defiant features are – or were, her quiet passing, the tumour that was to be her conqueror marked by a garden grave – a physical representation of her unwillingness to succumb to anything as pitiful as a broken heart. She was a child of profound loss; a brother dead at six, a sister paralysed by meningitis, a fatal explosives incident, a mother driven insane by grief. Only in her final novel (almost as though, as a believer of fate, she knew it to be her last) were the wounds of the past permitted to bleed onto the pages, the cynically titled The Truth About Love. In her novels, Hart was cold and realistic in her emotional explorations; in life such impracticalities were masked by her uniform black and white high-necked blouses, thinly arched eyebrows and her only public confession, her reliance on the written word, to which she referred as a “lifeline.” In life, Hart was effervescently charming, a gracious host and a poetry lover. Her ending mirrored her novels, abrupt and sparing nothing.

Oblivion (1995) is unlike its predecessors Damage (1990) and Sin (1992) in that the voice of the narrator, obliquely masked by the masculine epithet ‘Andrew’, is so unequivocally Josephine. In Damage, the story of a sexual obsession and Sin, of an obsessive hatred for an adopted sister, it was easier for Hart to adopt the position of an observer, coolly noting happenings from the periphery. Oblivion is the realisation that all things “can be survived” except the termination of survival itself, and the reluctant reliance on fate shows itself in the fearful narrative. The fear of being not just gone, but forgotten, is not Andrew’s, nor Sarah’s, nor even Laura’s, but Hart’s and Hart’s alone. Josephine Hart had the Irish familiarity with burial and mourning, the acceptance of what she labels “the first journey” – death. In a darkly gothic passage, Hart (with startling, practised accuracy) leads the reader through the process of cremation: “and it will take up to one and a half hours to reduce you, flesh and dear old bone, hair and gristle, to dust, which will be mixed up, I’m afraid, with the rest of the coffin. Nothing’s pure, darling, even in death.” This is Hart at her observational best, a realism only found in glimpses throughout her novels (the anguished kitchen scene of Damage, the drowning of the children in The Stillest Day.) She uses her authorial upper hand in these scenes, almost saying through the pages, I am not afraid. You’re terrified. Yet away from the skeletal realities of the first journey, the shallow graves and horrific, terminal illnesses, when Oblivion ventures into the realms of the ambiguous second journey, the eponymous state of the novel, it is Hart who is more affected than the reader, and her prose shudders with fear.

Oblivion borrowed from Wuthering Heights the creeping guilt of a non-adulterous relationship that comes with the knowledge that it should not be happening and the resurrection of the fretful dead. Josephine Hart does not share Emily Bronte’s disconsolate romanticisms; the dancing on the moors and tapping at the window is transposed into claustrophobic rooms, the relationship that Andrew is attempting to rebuild is shockingly real, the love he knows his new girlfriend, Sarah, feels for him but that he cannot bring himself to reciprocate. (“I love you, I truly love you.” “I know.”) Laura selfishly rises from the dead because she cannot bring herself to be forgotten, not because she is willed back by her grieving family. Paradoxically, although Laura is not visible to her family, they often feel her presence, and Andrew addresses her until the novel’s closing lines: I have a son, Laura. My son’s name is John. Although The Truth About Love was Josephine Hart’s childhood story, it is Oblivion where she is at her most vulnerable; a voice reaches through the prose, saying: Let the world burn. Empty it of everything and I shall not be afraid. Kill me, I don’t fear death. But please, don’t let me be forgotten. 

In London Fields, Martin Amis speaks of blue being the colour of “sadness and sexuality.” In Oblivion, we are instructed to “absorb the colour blue” almost as if it were a distraction from the consummation of a relationship and the blueness is overtly sexual, coloured by death. In Joan Didion’s haunting Blue Nights, the colour blue represents sadness in all its forms: grief, loss, frailty and abandonment. “In some latitudes,” Didion begins, in an italicised foreword which suggests directness, “There comes a span of time approaching and following the summer solstice, some weeks in all, when the twilights turn long and blue.” Rage, rage, against the dying of the light, pleaded Dylan Thomas in Do Not Go Gentle. Didion, strangely practical in despair and less willing to dispense with emotion, does not share his grievous denial. I found my mind turning increasingly to illness, to the end of promise, the dwindling of days, she notes in her unapologetically autobiographical introduction. If blue in Oblivion is deeply sexual, edged with guilt, found in the orchestrated raindrops and the surrealist scene where Laura is only a body of water away, and Andrew swims to her, Blue Nights contains the blue of emotion, the raw blue of endings, the blue of the regrettable past. Didion and Hart’s novels are bound not just by the colour that runs through them, but by their authors, hardened by loss. Blue Nights was published in 2011, the year of Josephine Hart’s death. Hart would have undoubtedly appreciated the unbroken emotion of the novel, but by the time Didion had the strength to reflect, it was too late.

Hidden within the pages of the novel is its silent secret, all trapped in one little line: does anyone ever think, what if I fail to love this baby? Quintana Roo is dead, and although this is the basis of the novel, her death and the questions it raises – who, what, where, why, how? – are never answered. Minimal research will provide information – acute pancreatitis; thirty nine – but such details are unimportant. This is not a story about a child’s death, but a mother’s guilt. Didion relates adoption to abandonment, and what follows is the inevitable assumption of an adopted child that they are fated to never be loved. Martin Amis wrote in the London Review that Didion has a tendency to explore the same thing from “several different angles.” Within the confinement of Blue Nights, she dissects and reassembles her feelings, tortured by the same memories, the same fragments of speech: brush your teeth, brush your hair, shush I’m working; her depths, her shallows, her quicksilver changes; let me just be in the ground and go to sleep; I’m going to lock you in the garage; after I became five I never ever dreamed about him. There’s something scientific in Didion’s analysis of the effect of a death of a child, firstly quoting Napoleon “It is horrible to see oneself die without children,” later Euripides: “What greater grief can there be for mortals than to see their children dead.” She approaches the subject first as if she were, and had always been, a childless woman, before recognising herself as a victim of loss. Joan Didion cannot be a woman who is unused to losing, having at 80, outlived the deaths of the closest components of her family unit. She has often been criticised for writing to exorcise pain and guilt, but unlike Josephine Hart, Didion does not write as though her pain demands to be felt. She observes carefully, wistfully, citing unknown names from obscure sources; in the passage which describes “the tendency to overreact to what might seem ordinary, even predictable circumstances” as common among suicides, it is only the hyper-sensitive reader that would trace the description back to Didion’s own considerations. In a book presented as being autobiographical, with real names and real loss taking place in real time, the confessions are sparing, and it is not until the closing pages that the author admits to “frailty” that has been caused not by the passage of time directly, but by what it has inflicted on her.

Quintana in the book is never pictured as old (she never lived to be old). She is never pictured as dying. She is found through poems written, cautious observations, the flowers she chose for her wedding, her borderline personality disorder, the “suicidal despair” which haunts Didion throughout the novel. She speaks of “this fear” – the certainties of ageing, illness, death – which she comes to realise is a direct correlation of living without children. When we talk about mortality, we are talking about our children, she adds to her list of quotations as an afterthought. I said that. Blue Nights is memories gathered over a lifetime, strung together with the sting of what is now gone and resentment manifested in the loss of a friend – Natasha Redgrave – it was never supposed to happen to her. Joan Didion is not only referring to her friend, but to her daughter, and to everyone that she has lost. It’s almost as though she can’t bring herself to say it.

At the end, the thinly veiled blue night falls like a forgotten curtain, and Didion does bring herself to say what has weighed down every word of hers previously written. Go back into the blue, she laments. I myself placed her ashes in the wall. I myself saw the cathedral doors locked at six. I know what frailty is, I know what the fear is. The fear is not for what is lost. It is the novel’s powerful conclusion – a realisation that although there may be nothing still to be lost, there is “no day” when Joan Didion does not see her daughter, there is no day when she does not feel as though she has yet to lose her, before reminding herself that she already has.

Elizabeth Bishop’s profound poem suggested that losing can be mastered and even perhaps that it must be, in order to survive. Yet the Art of Losing is an art, something which must be worked at, struggled with, perfected and overcome. To read Joan Didion and Josephine Hart is to recognise the pain with which every cold word swells and to realise that these two women are, and were, masters of the art of losing.

Urban Severity: London Fields by Martin Amis 

After having shaken off the unsuitable sobriquet of enfant terrible – the vigilant French euphemism that the literary world had offered an author for which they were not quite prepared – a chain smoking Oxford graduate whose first novel, The Rachel Papers, bordered on the pornographic – Martin Amis was seen as the descendant of the twentieth century cohort; a natural progression from Vonnegut, Heller, Mailer, Updike and Bellow. Yet when considering Amis, the unrepentant orchestrator of the plots of Yellow Dog, Lionel Asbo and particularly London Fields, parallels with an altogether different author can be drawn. When reading Amis’ 1989 novel, London Fields, Harold Pinter’s description of Samuel Beckett comes to mind: “he is the most courageous, remorseless, writer going and the more he grinds my nose in the sh*t the more I am grateful to him.” Amis would not be flattered by the comparison, having once in conversation with Salman Rushdie described Beckett’s prose as ugly and “full of negatives”, yet the remorseless lack of withholding information, the excessive detail of pornography, of excrement, of violence and illness and death which are so prominent in the novels of Martin Amis, is Beckettian in style. If, in How It Is, Beckett has his protagonists crawling through the mud on a journey of self-discovery, Amis forces his characters to metaphorically crawl through the mud, because he knows that he can, and that being his own loathsome creations, they probably deserve it. 

London Fields, much like Lolita and Wuthering Heights, is built upon the premise of death upon arrival. Samson Young, the novel’s narrator and also the creator of the plot – for the other characters are only present through Samson’s narrative, in his hope of concocting a “speedy thriller” which will award him authorial success – has returned to London from Manhattan to write, and also to die, due to an unspecified terminal illness which presents him with “dizzy spells” and requires constant doses of codine. Samson’s fictional anti-heroine, Nicola Six, is a self-appointed murderee, who aims to die before she turns thirty five and spends most of the novel choosing between the two male characters in an attempt to decide which is the better murderer. John Sutherland, in his London Fields introduction, reminds us that thirty five is the “Dantean age” when descent into the inferno begins; within the novel’s pages Amis does not allow his reasoning to be so erudite, choosing to justify Nicola’s decision by suggesting that polar opposites need one another: “the failed suicide attempt needs a murderer, so the murderer needs a murderee.” London Fields missed the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize in 1989 due to apparent “misogyny,” yet of all of Amis’ women, usually long suffering at the hands of their husbands and partners, Nicola Six is surely the most three dimensional and one of Amis’ most carefully considered creations. She is heavily linked with sex – something Amis and a great deal of other writers can never quite escape when writing about the female – but this is worlds away from the description of “woman-crammed” clothing in Yellow Dog. Despite having worked as a prostitute, a deliverer of kissograms, and having claimed to sleep with Arabic royalty, the reader feels that none of this was imposed upon Nicola, and rather that she wields the power within the novel, even over her creator himself. 

Like Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway, Samson Young claims to be a ‘reliable narrator’. Also like Nick Carraway, these claims are proven to be false. As Samson (a name given with wonderful irony) continues with the novel and his health declines, his characters (all stronger than him) slip out of his control. After some resistance, Samson succumbs to the inevitable and the characters have voices of their own in the novel, with Samson not even having a say in his own ending in the narrative. Realistically, this seems an impossibility, but beneath the surface, Amis appears to be making a valid point: that characters often do develop personalities of their own and slip out of authorial control. This is another similarity to Beckett, who used to sit with a piece of paper and only write when a voice came to him. Samson Young appears to encompass many of Amis’ weaknesses and none of his strengths: he is disfigured by fear of his own demise (Amis revealed his mortality was all he could think about upon turning forty), is loathing of London (comparing white bread to “the brain of an animal more stupid than a sheep”) of Manhattan, of his illness, of lack of success, of desire. Later on in the novel, Samson will fulfill Amis’ prophecy that most authors, in some way, have relations with their characters, by means of a rather dubiously imagined sex scene with Nicola Six. 

John Sutherland, amongst other reviewers, has accused Amis of “riding the hobby horse too hard” in London Fields, and it can be argued that all of Amis’ creations allow him to indulge himself in some way. While Samson Young allows indulgence in more vulnerable qualities (fear, remorse, insecurity) Keith Talent, Amis’ tribute to 1983 Darts World Champion Keith Deller, allows Amis to once again fuel his obsession of writing about the lowest, morally exempt individuals in society. Keith is the novel’s supposed murderer, except Nicola believes him to look more like a “murderer’s dog”. He is undoubtedly the proletarian precursor to 2012’s Lionel Asbo, the sort of man who became a cheat because he failed at petty crime, who unapologetically has affairs with a variety of women, who only stops raping people because he realises that he cannot profit from it. Yet there is a humorous element to Keith: he is taught, by Nicola, to read poetry by the Romantics, and Wuthering Heights, in the hopes that he will become ‘Keithcliff’. He defends his relationship with sixteen year old Debbie, allows his wife to call their child Kim, and is easily manipulated by Nicola. Keith is something of an amusement for Amis, from his ferocious interest in darts to his own name (the sound of Keith has always amused Amis.) Keith’s role in London Fields is that of the cheat, yet all three of Samson Young’s main characters could be cast in this role. Sometimes, Amis’ reasons for interest in these characters is transparent: Keith Talent, because he clings to the underbelly of society; Nicola Six, because she is easily desired; Guy Clinch (the ‘other’ man in the novel, a weak, gangly, sort reminiscent of Stephen Merchant) because he seems so unlikely to have an affair, yet he does. Guy’s thoughts on his marriage after the affair are brilliantly summarised by Amis: “so distorted now, in his feelings for her, by the weight of what she didn’t know.”

If Money is a suicide note, which it is, and The Second Plane is a murder meticulously planned, then London Fields is an eclectic mix of the two. Nicola Six’s story is a suicide note, whilst Samson Young’s death is inevitable yet involuntary – but we soon learn that nobody in London Fields will escape the pages alive. Set ten years after publication, the plot stretching out into the final baking months of 1999, Amis’ Orwellian prophecy sees the world ending in an unspecified solar crisis. John Sutherland reveals that Amis had an interest in Physics during this time, which manifests itself in the form of the solar crisis “the sun shouldn’t be coming in low like this…setting the horizon on fire like this…burning so aslant like this.” Yet it is only the narrator that pays heed to the crisis (perhaps preoccupied with his own dwindling time on Earth) whilst the characters would rather think about almost anything else. Keith is too concerned with becoming darts champion, Nicola is too busy planning her own death to care about anyone else’s, whilst Guy Clinch attempts to salvage his previously perfect marriage – before his wife gave birth to Marmaduke, the uncontrollable child. 

On the surface, London Fields is a novel of suicide, sodomy and selfishness (all taking place in a city described by Amis as a somnopolis.) If it were by a less experienced, less ruthless, less critical author than Amis, perhaps that is all the novel ever would have been. Yet London Fields exists outside of time’s “temporal arena” (Nicola Six’s imaginary friend is Enola Gay, the name of the aircraft which dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima in 1945) and it is a disgusted tribute to what London has become, a novel within a novel. There is also a desperate reach for some sentiment, with Amis referring to Larkin’s bitter poem, Love Again, and a deliberation on feeling when discussing tennis: “even on the tennis court love has gone, even on the tennis court love has been replaced by nothing.” 

When Samson Young is being driven to his editor Mark Asprey’s apartment in London, the taxi driver from whom he draws inspiration for Keith Talent is described as having eyes with a hint of “urban severity.” It is this phrase which best encapsulates the prose of Martin Amis; his characters are forever on a decline from morality, from sanity, from love. And they – even with their own voices, are completely out of control – forced to look out of unfamiliar windows of high rise glass buildings as they try desperately to crawl back into the past. 

Losing Under The Right Circumstances: Levels of Life by Julian Barnes 

Were it possible to extract grief in its purest form; should there be a hydrolysis reaction powerful enough to separate the emotional, physical and chemical matter of which it is composed, we would be left with the very essence: a quiet reflection on the emotion that overshadows a lifetime. This essence, this purified grief, can be found in Julian Barnes’ novel, Levels of Life, which is in part an historical observation of aeronautics, in part a deeply sorrowful (sorrowful because, according to Barnes, when it comes to grief, only the old words will do) memoir of his late wife, Pat Kavanagh. 

Levels of Life is organised into three sections; and it satisfies the usual Barnesian criteria: peppered with Francophiliean knowledge, observations of the past, the impulsive chasing of memory, desperation for recollection, dissections of love and the feeling of Englishness that is so prominent in Barnes’ novels. Yet even for those who have come to recognise aspects of Barnes through his prose – be it through the adolescent vision of Metroland, the choice between morality and memory mapped out by Talking It Over (rediscovered in the sequel Love Etc) and even later in The Sense of an Ending – the evocatively nostalgic reflection of a school friend’s suicide – there is something of a previously unknown Barnes revealed within Levels of Life. For the first time, Julian Barnes is not the architect of his characters’ misfortunes, waiting apprehensively on the periphery for the impact to unfurl. He has instead decided to become his own protagonist; venturing into the depths of his own life, and his own loss. 

The first segment of the novel begins with ascension: it is aptly titled “The Sin of Height.” The principle of the novel – although the reader is not as yet aware – is introduced in the first line. “You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed.” Later, Barnes will lament about unknown passengers on public transport, and their obliviousness to his wife’s death: “don’t they know that the world has changed?” But this is not Barnes’s story. For the moment, he selflessly – is it selfless? – steps into the shadows, understanding what the reader has yet to learn: it is quite impossible to comprehend the depths if one has not experienced the height. 

This story – the sin of height – belongs to Fred Burnaby, to Sarah Bernhardt and to Félix Tournachon. These three separate stories are bound to each other by the destiny of height. Fred Burnaby, an English Colonel, embarked on a flight in a hot air balloon from Dover to Dieppe on the 23rd March 1882. Sarah Berhardt, a French actress, had previously used the same mode of transport to journey from Paris to Seine et Marne, whilst Félix Tournachon, a professional aeronautic, left the Champ de Mars in 1863, whereupon an Easterly wind left him in Hanover. The first link between an English amateur, a famous French actress and a professional balloonist is the desire for flight. Later, other links follow. Tournachon, the red haired friend of Baudelaire and Victor Hugo, photographed the actress Sarah Bernhardt, thus, as Barnes later writes, he pushes together “two emblems of modernity – photography and aeronautics.” Later, Tournachon (who adopts the name ‘Nadar’) is described as an “uxorious” man, a word which Barnes later uses when talking about himself. These links are not accidental, as Barnes is not, and has never been, in the habit of writing accidental prose. Some connections are ambiguous – in the way of Woolf’s The Waves – and the significance of aeronautics in Levels of Life is perhaps only understood when Barnes compares living a life of solitude happily to “trying to lift an implausible contraption off the ground.” Height’s only sin, the reader realises, is that it makes people believe that they are immune to falling. 

Levels of Life’s second section – On the Level – finds Barnes at his most familiar between two strikingly different styles. He returns to what is surely one of his favourite themes – love – in a narrative that witnesses the crossing of the lives of two of those who were involved in the 19th century aeronautics movement: Sarah Bernhardt, the extravagant, exotic, bohemian French actress who unashamedly slept with all of her leading men, and Fred Burnaby, “often described as bohemian”, and who had, since travelling to Asia Minor and Russia, known the “exoticism which Bernhardt merely appropriated.” For Barnes’ claims that “love may not always be evenly matched – perhaps it rarely is”, Burnaby and Bernhardt appear to be just that. This is a love story with hints of tumult among the glamour, tumult that leads to the final of the chapter of the three; for which the reader has unknowingly, or knowingly, been waiting. “We live on the flat, on the level, and yet – and so – we aspire”, writes Barnes, knowing of the reminiscence in his own story “when my life was on the level.” Carefully noted is Burnaby’s dismissal of the “cork life jackets” worn by balloonists in case of sudden descent into the sea. “I’ll take my chances,” he says, a statement with which Barnes morosely agrees: “there are no soft landings.” 

Some believe that Barnes over-emphasises the balloon metaphor, and perhaps a case could be made for their belief. However, as I previously stated, Barnes is not, and never has been, a writer of accidental prose. The height was necessary to understand the depths, and the depths were necessary to understand the level: the level at which life should be lived for happiness to be achieved. Unlike Goethe’s Elective Affinities, which perhaps relies too much on a Chemistry metaphor revealed too early, the fluctuation between grasping the heights and probing the depths in Levels of Life is representative of the uncertainty of grief, and entirely necessary for the essence of the emotion. 

Josephine Hart, best known for Damage, but who wrote a plethora of novels which captured the crookedness of the human form with startling accuracy, once remarked that pain “demands to be felt.” In the third and final chapter of Levels of Life, called The Loss of Depth, it appears that it is Barnes who demands to feel the pain, not vice versa. What begins with a mathematical conception of grief – what is taken away is greater than the sum of what was there, and this is not mathematically possible, but it is emotionally possible – dips quickly, and unapologetically into autobiographical narrative. Details are withheld; a fervent yet understandable grasp for privacy, one feels – and the events are related in quick succession. Barnes and his wife were married for thirty years, “I was thirty two when we met and sixty two when she died.” There was also a period of “thirty seven days from diagnosis to death.” These facts are delivered brutally, clinically, with Barnes lacking consideration for the reader’s shock when he can barely register his own. It does not take much research to discover that Julian Barnes was married to Pat Kavanagh, who died of a particularly aggressive brain tumour. Standing alone, these facts seem insignificant. Levels of Life has never been a question of to whom Barnes was married, but of the way that her death shaped (and eroded) his writing, in this novel and the others written after 2008. Longtime readers will, with some unpleasantly chilling surprise, discover that the inspiration for the suicide of Adrian Finn in The Sense of An Ending was drawn from Barnes himself: “I knew soon enough my preferred method – a hot bath, a glass of wine next to the taps, and an exceptionally sharp Japanese carving knife.” 

The Loss of Depth stands alone in the novel, and can be read and understood without The Sin of Height and On the Level to preface it, aside from a few references to Nadar and Sarah Bernhardt, yet the section’s prose is so searingly personal that you’ll want to look away, feeling uncomfortable as it seems such an invasion. This is not Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, nor Hart’s Oblivion: there is no religious element, no presence of the supernatural. Barnes states, in a sentence so truly dreadful to comprehend, that he believes he will never again be reunited with his wife. How then, does he live on? Barnes speaks to his wife every day, “you marry to continue the conversation. Why let death interrupt it?” He also becomes acquainted with opera, revealing his thoughts on the scene in Orpheus and Eurydice when Orpheus goes against his promise and looks back at Eurydice – you lose the world for a glance? Of course you do. That’s what the world is for: to lose under the right circumstances.” 

If Levels of Life could be described in one word, which it cannot, as it is not feasible to condense a novel in such a way, the word would be unapologetic. In The Sin of Height, Barnes is unapologetically knowledgeable, describing even the most obscure of Historical events. He is unapologetically romantic in On The Level, acting once again as the master of memory and love, orchestrating a doomed affair between a mismatched couple. In The Loss of Depth, Barnes is simply unapologetic: about grief, what he has lost, what he shall never regain, about ending friendships with those who fail to understand his fragile situation. Barnes is as honest with himself as he is with his many unfortunate protagonists, and perhaps that is the best thing about this wonderful novel: Levels of Life gives us a glimpse into the mind of a man who has really lost, but who has lost under the right circumstances. 

The Aesthetics of Morality: Brideshead Revisited 

Brideshead Revisited is a novel known by many, and when a piece of literature has been so read, so well understood, so analysed, it becomes more difficult to compartmentalise. I approach Brideshead Revisited as a novel of contradictions; at its best it is a terrifying encapsulation of sin and the vices that prey on those who so try to avoid it. At its worst, Brideshead is a novel of sheer, unapologetic gluttony: consisting of twilight frolicking and a life that is “reflected in a dapple of light on painted ceilings.” Such gluttony was described by the author, Evelyn Waugh, as being “distasteful” on a full stomach.

There may be a case to be made for Waugh’s observation; the descriptions of three course meals and cigar smoke can lie heavily on the gut, feeling so rich that they can often appear sickly, but they are nevertheless a crucial part of Brideshead Revisited. For the novel as a whole clings to a nostalgia that constantly aches for something, be it the understanding of love, the simpler days of Oxford undergraduate study, or the presence of the nobility. Brideshead’s narrator, Charles Ryder, spends the entirety of the book reflecting on his enchantment with the Marchmain family; an infatuation that begins with his meeting of Sebastian at Oxford, and trickles away in the final pages as the love affair between Charles and Sebastian’s sister Julia culminates. Whether fascinated by the world that the family inhabit – the inherent privilege that accompanies the Marchmain existence is miles away from the life Charles lives with his widower Father – or the family members themselves, Charles’ inability to escape his links with the Marchmains forms a pivotal part of Brideshead Revisited. The book spans over three hundred pages, and the years progress rapidly. There is, however, the constant feeling that Charles Ryder is reaching back through the past towards that first, juvenile, hot Oxford summer – “if it could only be like this always – always summer, always alone.” Ryder insists that his theme is “memory, that winged grey host that soared above me one grey morning of war time”. From the title alone, it is clear that Brideshead Revisited is a reconstruction, the familiarity present even in the opening line: “I have been here before.” Like Fitzgerald’s Gatsby and Du Maurier’s Rebecca, the novel aches with a longing to return. 

I approach Brideshead, or the aftermath of Brideshead, as a series of contradictions. The rich, almost sickly aestheticism of the Marchmain lifestyle; the vast, twin fireplaces of sculpted marble, and later, in Venice, whereupon Charles Ryder found himself to be drowning in honey, stingless, drawn to the effervescently vivid opulence, is heavily contrasted with the religious lifestyle led by the family. Julia, Sebastian’s graceful sister, is tempted until the last minute with a second marriage to Charles, but recoils with one of literature’s most famous monologues: the deliberation of sin – all in one word, too, one little flat, deadly word that covers a lifetime. Like Charles, Julia is obsessed with love, although neither seem to understand it. Charles describes standing “on the extreme verge of love,” despite having been desperately cold to his previous wife, and viewing Julia as a fragment of Sebastian, who has captured his eternal entrancement. The contradictions in Brideshead mount when Julia’s aestheticism, “the magical sadness… The thwarted look that had seemed to say: surely I was made for some other purpose than this?”  disappears, and she cancels her engagement to Charles due to her fear of the consequence of sin. The novel then becomes what it has always been destined to be: a war novel, like Heller’s Catch 22, Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, and the eclectic assortment of novels that end or begin with war, with forgetting or remembering war, that were published before and after this one. 

Brideshead Revisited is a retrospective account, a narrative that reconstructs a summer of idealism that changed the course of Charles Ryder’s life. It differs in the way that Ryder – or perhaps Waugh – is constantly reaching; reaching back into the past, back to the aquatint city of Oxford, back to having ideals of love concocted in twilight gatherings. Whether in Oxford, or Venice, or the trenches, Waugh’s richly superficial magnum opus is wonderful in that all the things for which it so desperately reaches, are doomed to be eternally out of grasp. 

Synonyms for Nostalgia: Joan Baez’s Diamonds and Rust 

There are numerous things with which I associate Diamonds and Rust. Firstly, a body of saltwater, lying motionless underneath a cloudless sky. A half melted ice cube, still in its three dimensional form, but perceptibly not whole. Later, tumbling through the lines – now you’re smiling out the window of that crummy hotel over Washington Square – nostalgia curls like wisps of cigar smoke. Diamonds and Rust, like Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, is wonderful for all the things that it doesn’t say. It is the white space around the lyrics, the fragments of memory that are too buried in the past to grasp, that is reflected most within this song. Like the melted ice cube, Diamonds and Rust tells the story of something that was once whole, and is now irretrievable. Baez’s lyrics lack the mocking bitterness of Joni Mitchell’s A Case Of You, and are without the gradual acceptance that creeps into Bonnie Raitt’s I Can’t Make You Love Me. 

There is a fascination with Diamonds and Rust because of Baez herself, and the relationship which she shared with Bob Dylan. Written a decade after the ending of their romance, the song is without the reeling from shock that created Jann Arden’s Insensitive, and is instead a quiet reflection on being haunted by an old lover. A few key lines signify Dylan’s presence in Diamonds and Rust – I remember your eyes were bluer than robin’s eggs, the original vagabond – but they’re so oblique, so scattered in the verses, that they would be difficult to pick out unless you were looking for them. The song itself, intended to be something entirely different until Dylan phoned from a booth in the Midwest to read the completed lyrics to Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts, is weighted by an exploration of memory, and a half sense of longing which never really culminates. It is as if Baez never lets herself get that far. 

The song is entirely Dylan’s. His response arrived within his album No Direction Home, a remark in passing: it’s hard to be wise and in love at the same time. But it could have been anyone’s. The vagueness of memory; the scrambling to find forgotten pieces, things once said, gifts once exchanged – you bought me something, it’s funny what memories can bring, they bring Diamonds and Rust. I was first intrigued by this song in much the same way as I was by Stevie Nicks’ Rooms on Fire – it had a gripping title which reminded me of a line in a poem from Lolita and all the rest is rust and stardust. The title of the song itself, thought to be based on the idea that time turns charcoal into diamonds and shiny metal into rust, challenges the imperfections of memory and the dusty haze of the past. 

Diamonds and Rust is almost aqueous in its calmness, the lack of demand in Baez’s voice clear until she reaches the line: Now you tell me you’re not nostalgic, then give me another word for it. You were so good with words. The whole song is a grapple with nostalgia, trying to find a synonym for missing the past without having it become the present. 

It’s not until the end of the song that Baez reaches a crescendo that falls away with acceptance – Now it’s all come back too clearly, yes I loved you dearly, but if you’re offering me diamonds and rust, I’ve already paid. 

Diamonds and Rust is a break up song that reconstructs the event, inspired, as some of the best songs are, by a burst of nostalgia. It is Baez’s calm soprano, restrained emotion and quiet reflection that sets it apart from others in the genre.