Sunday, January 19, 2014

Heights and Depths

Levels of Life

By Julian Barnes

“You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed.” That is how the book begins. And the three essays in Barnes’s Levels of Life is a demonstration of how magic can be created by the juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated things.
The first one The Sin of Height is about ballooning in the 19th century - specifically about the pioneer Felix Tournachon (Nadar) who combines his twin passions of ballooning and photography to attempt aerial photography, an attempt that ultimately leads a century later to the Apollo 8 mission’s photograph of the earth from space. While describing Nadar’s experiments and successes, Barnes also points out his touching devotion to his ailing wife. The topic of  love, which is again, in some way a joining of two unrelated beings, is the subject in Barnes’s next essay On the Level.
On the Level is about an imaginary love affair between Sarah Bernhardt, the legendary French actress and the English adventurer and soldier Fred Burnaby. Both are extremely unconventional, bohemian. They fall for each other. And it leads Fred to propose the unthinkable - an actual marriage. He is of course, refused. Sarah Bernhardt explains, “I am constantly in search of new sensations, new emotions….My heart desires more excitement than anyone…any one person… can give.” Fred is heartbroken in a way he has never experienced before; and though he does marry, he carries the hurt until his death in a battle at Khartoum. As Barnes observes in the beginning, “Every love story is a grief story. If not at first, then later. If not for one, then for the other. Sometimes for both.”
And that observation brings us to the third and best essay of all - The Loss of Depth. A deeply personal essay, Barnes writes about his losing his wife after 30 years of marriage. He is grief stricken and he explores the experience of his own grief in the months and years after the death. It proves to be a powerful and incredibly moving exposition on the nature of grief and mourning. For someone who does not believe in an afterlife (“I believe dead is dead.”), there is little to console, little to hope for - “It’s just the universe doing its stuff.” Barnes writes about his anger at friends who skirt the issue of his wife’s death, who are uncomfortable talking about her or his grief with him. He writes about the note his wife left him, a note that in some way consoles him - “The thing is - nature is so exact, it hurts exactly as much as it is worth, so in a way one relishes the pain, I think. If it didn’t matter, it wouldn’t matter.” He writes about contemplating suicide, about planning for it. And about how he gets that thought out of his mind - the awareness that if he was dead, she was even more dead - since she now lived most vividly in his memory. He writes about time not being a great healer - “ Grief is the negative image of love; and if there can be an accumulation of love over the years, then why not of grief?” He writes about the consolation of pain, about almost relishing it - “ Pain shows that you have not forgotten; pain enhances the flavour of memory; pain is a proof of love.” And then “the final tormenting, unanswerable question: what is ‘success’ in mourning? Does it lie in remembering or in forgetting? A staying still or moving on? Or some combination of both?”
The Loss of Depth is gut-wrenching. For anyone who has ever experienced this kind of mind-numbing grief, this is a must read. As it is for anyone who hasn’t. As Barnes himself puts it so succinctly - “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”

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Speed, Revolution and Growing Up

The Flame Throwers 
by Rachel Kushner

The set pieces are wonderful. Reno speeding through the salt pans on her Valera bike, pushing the limits; the blackout in New York and Reno walking the streets observing the darker side of New Yorkers; Rome in revolutionary mode, students protesting against the government and Reno again the observer, watching what it is to be on the other side of privilege.There are more. Descriptive, poetic, alive. It’s the pieces in between that are a bit more problematic.

“Enchantment means to want something and also to know, somewhere inside yourself, not an obvious place, that you aren’t going to get it.” So thinks the 23 year unnamed narrator we only know as Reno, a name given to her because that’s the place she comes from. It’s the seventies and Reno is a very young, impressionable ‘land artist’ - someone who creates art on land, photographing the speed lines her bike makes on salt. She is also ‘enchanted’ - by the New York art world she hopes to enter, by Ronnie and Sandro and Giddle, by all the ‘artists’ she meets, people who call themselves artists by just carrying around a long stick wherever they go, by sticking their vagina into a hole where people can put their fingers into. It’s a strange, insular New York world, described with what one hopes is more irony than fascination. It’s a difficult world a speed addict and artist from the West could hope to enter. And even as Reno enters it, sleeping with and losing her heart and soul to first Ronnie and then Sandro, she is forever conscious of being the outsider, the observer. A bit like Nick in Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty.

She is again the observer in Sandro’s Italian home, of privilege and wealth. Sandro Valera of the Valera motorcycle and tyres fame returns to the home he has run away from, with Reno in tow. Ostensibly to be with Reno as she takes part in a motorcycle race. But the race never happens. Instead Reno is witness to revolution first hand. She is exposed to the privileged world Sandro has pushed himself away from - of dressing for dinner, of swimming pooled houses, of Sandro’s snarky mother and her writer friend, of a brother who is fighting to keep the Valera business and a way of life going in the midst of student protests and left wing violence. And in this privileged world, as Reno experiences betrayal and heartbreak, it sends her fleeing to the other end of the spectrum. She wanders through a Rome in the midst of revolution, gets in with the protesters, even helps one flee the country.

There is a lot more in the book than just Reno. There is the history of the Valera fortune; a back story of Sandro’s father, his love for bikes, the tyre empire he built with slave labour in Brazil, his wartime experiences.But these are almost fillers and we are forever wanting to come back to Reno and her story.
Reno had started off wanting to live experiences. By the end of the book, she has lived through a lifetime of them in a few short months. Yet, there is a remote, almost detached quality to living them. It is as if you never know Reno totally. You see what she goes through vividly, almost as if you are watching a film - the thrill of the speed, the darkness of a blacked-out New York, the chaos of protests in the street. But the heartbreak and betrayal and guilt do not touch you. There is cleverness and poetry in the language, historical authenticity in the plot. But what lives with you are the set pieces. Not the characters, not the emotion. The Flamethrowers is lovely in a way. But it could have been so much more.