I read Levels of Life by Julian Barnes not long ago & absolutely adored it. I thought it managed to be so many things: a nugget of grief, unvarnished and unadorned, around which Barnes had accreted layers of protective--or illustrative--literary flourish. A little pearl, an homage to Proust, a really moving book. Great.
So I picked up Levels of Life with pretty high expectations, and at first they were met. The narrator is an old man reflecting on his adolescence. The most powerful moments in the book link both stages of his life with a resonance that amplifies through time--youthful mistakes that seem rash but acceptable in the heat of the moment but then, decades later, horrify him.
I like the way Barnes writes. I like the careful plainness of his word choice--some of the quotes are lovely:
"I certainly believe we all suffer damage, one way or another. How could we not, except in a world of perfect parents, siblings, neighbours, companions? And then there is the question, on which so much depends, of how we react to the damage: whether we admit it or repress it, and how this affects our dealings with others. Some admit the damage, and try to mitigate it; some spend their lives trying to help others who are damaged; and then there are those whose main concern is to avoid further damage to themselves, at whatever cost. And those are the ones who are ruthless, and the ones to be careful of."
"History isn't the lies of the victors, as I once glibly assured Old Joe Hunt [high school history teacher]; I know that now. It's more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated."
"when we are young and sensitive, we are also at our most hurtful; whereas when the blood begins to slow, when we feel less sharply, when we are more armoured and have learnt how to bear hurt, we tread more carefully"
"I had wanted life not to bother me too much, and had succeeded--and how pitiful that was."
"You bet on a relationship, it fails; you go on to the next relationship, it fails too: and maybe what you lose is not two simple minus sums but the multiple of what you staked. That's what it feels like, anyway. Life isn't just addition and subtraction. There's also the accumulation, the multiplication, of loss, of failure."
"Back then, you can remember your short life in its entirety. Later, the memory becomes a thing of shreds and patches. It's a bit like the black box aeroplanes carry to record what happens in a crash. If nothing goes wrong, the tape erases itself. So if you do crash, it's obvious why you did; if you don't, then the log of your journey is much less clear."
"Sometimes I think the purpose of life is to reconcile us to its eventual loss by wearing us down, by proving, however long it takes, that life isn't all it's cracked up to be."
So, reading along, I was content. The story was simple, but seemed to be going somewhere, and I like books that are meditative, where the narrator has room to digress.
However, right towards the end--after the 80% mark--the book goes to hell in a handbasket. All this quiet, suspenseful recounting of the narrator's youth is leading us toward some revelation, catalyzed by a strange bequest he receives in the present from a woman he hardly knew.
Eventually, Barnes puts all the missing pieces on the table and I think they're meant to horrify us, or to offer a catharsis. Instead, they made me sorry I'd picked up the book, and a little bit disgusted with the author.
This is going to get into spoiler territory--but one one level, I'd expected more than a tawdry sex scandal. I don't pick up a smart, thoughtful, well written book for the prize of tabloid material at the end; it was sort of like taking a bite out of an apple only to find a worm inside. (Not, mind you, that there's no place for tabloid material in literature--but as a grand finale, it struck a very sour note for me; that's not a reveal, it's a cheap shock.)
On another level--and this is the one that really bothered me--the final reveal requires us to believe that a mentally handicapped child is a punishment, cosmic justice for the mother's misdeeds. I've learned to spot the signs, and this little plot point showcased every problem with the way disabled people are portrayed in literature and then doubled down on them. The character had no independent agency, no story of his own. He existed only to further the able-bodied character's story, and only as a horror and a burden.
The book lost me in the end & the last 20%, by their very nature, color everything that came before. So the whole book turned sour.
Probably it will be a while before I pick up another Julian Barnes book.