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Julian Barnes, Levels of Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), 128pp.Julian Barnes, Levels of Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), 128pp.

           In his last book, The Sense of an Ending (2011), the British writer Julian Barnes explored the relationship between personal memory, self-identity, aging, and, by the end of the story, deep regret. The novel won the Man Booker prize for the best English-language work of fiction. In Nothing to Be Frightened Of (2008), he examined his fear of death, given his lack of religious faith ("I don't believe in God, but I do miss him."). Was it possible to give his life a meaningful narrative?

           Barnes's newest book is a meditation on the relationship between grief and love. When you put two things together that have never been together, things change. Sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the worse. Just as balloonists can be punished for their bravado in the face of obvious dangers, and yet still seek the thrill of flight, we all aspire to soar, mainly through art, religion, and, especially, love. But to soar risks a crash. "Every love story," writes Barnes, "is a potential grief story." But like the "balloonatics," we still long to love despite the dangers.

           After two introductory chapters, Barnes's final chapter considers his experiences of grief when his wife of thirty years died — thirty-seven days from diagnosis to death. Despite the onslaught of confusing and contradictory experiences, there seem to be two lessons. First, when you put two people together and one is taken away, "what is taken away is greater than the sum of what was there. This might not be mathematically possible, but it's emotionally possible." And second, the grief we bear is proportionate to the love we shared. A friend wrote to him after his wife's death, "The thing is — nature is so exact, it hurts exactly as much as it is worth, so in a way one relishes the pain. If it didn't matter, it wouldn't matter." And so whereas you might not relish pain, it isn't futile, for "pain is a proof of love."

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