When Samuel Beckett was a young man, his parents wanted him to work in the family’s accountancy business and assume his place in Dublin’s Protestant merchant class. As Tim Parks writes in his new book, Life and Work: Writers, Readers, and the Conversations between Them, “a battle of wills ensued between mother and son…As the impasse intensified, [Beckett] developed a number of physical symptoms — boils, anal cysts, pelvic pains, tachycardia, panic attacks…” The panic attacks would plague Beckett for years, and his biographer Anthony Cronin tells us, in Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist, that he didn’t reflect on his maladies in a conventional manner. In 1935 he attended a lecture by Swiss psychiatrist and former Freud protégé C.J. Jung. Beckett was 29 years old, in analysis, and believed he suffered from a neurotic disorder that “had its origins in infancy, in a time he could not remember,” Cronin writes.
In the lecture, Jung described the case of a young girl whose difficulties baffled him until he fell upon a simple, though rather esoteric diagnosis: “The girl had never really been born.” The idea immediately fired Beckett’s imagination. Cronin claims it triggered something crucial in Beckett and would become central to his self-understanding, and a recurring motif in his works. Beckett, he writes, “thought the diagnosis was a profoundly suggestive illumination of his own case, his sense of alienation from the world and of not being ready or fitted to cope with it, to join in its activities as others did, or even to understand the reasons for them.”
In Life and Work, Parks writes about Beckett and 19 other writers, including Fyodor Dostoevsky, Georges Simenon, Muriel Spark, Peter Stamm, Haruki Murakami, Stieg Larsson, and E.L. James (Parks examining Fifty Shades of Grey is great fun). Here and there in the collection, one occasionally glimpses the true existential cost of the so-called “writer’s life,” where writing is both an act of self-abnegation — with all of its consequent anxieties — as well as a struggle against such a personalized nihilism.
Parks tells us that after Beckett published the novel Molloy at the age of 45 — finally setting the stage for literary renown after years of “retyping…for rejection,” as Beckett put it — he had his then girlfriend (and later wife) Suzanne Déchevaux-Dumesnil write to his publisher. She requested they do not enter Molloy for the prestigious Prix des Critiques, because the prizewinner would have to schmooze and make speeches, and “it is impossible for the prizewinner, without serious discourtesy, to refuse to go in for the posturings required by these occasions: warm words for his supporters, interviews, photos, etc. etc. And as (Beckett) feels wholly incapable of this sort of behavior, he prefers not to expose himself.” In light of Beckett’s self-diagnosis, it occurs to me that a man who doesn’t exist, a man who isn’t there, can’t be expected to sign books and sip burgundy with a bunch of boring editors and press types.
But this malady isn’t unique to Beckett and his Parisian, mid-century modernist milieu. Julian Barnes had a similar feeling. In his 2008 memoir/treatise on death, Nothing to be Frightened Of, Barnes writes he has a “grown-up fear of just not existing.” Parks believes Barnes is unable to “find consolation for the eventual extinction of his personality… bereft of a reassuring metaphysics and given the findings of science, life this side of the grave is anyway irretrievably devalued, and individual personality doesn’t in fact exist.” For Barnes, it seems to be a rather simple conclusion: If there is no God, then there must be no “me” as well.
Parks suggests we can think of personality as something that emerges vis-à-vis “one’s negotiations with others,” and he notes this has always proved problematic for the South African writer J.M. Coetzee. In examining Coetzee’s autobiographic trilogy, Boyhood, Youth, and Summertime, Parks wonders what happens when you come-of-age in 1940s South Africa — at a time when tribal identification is everything — yet you don’t identify with any one community. In Boyhood the protagonist attends a new school where he must self-declare as Christian, Catholic, or Jewish. The boy is from an Afrikaner family, but they speak English instead of Afrikaans. He is born in a Christian milieu, but his parents are agnostic. Because his family is “nothing,” he randomly chooses Catholic, but this doesn’t work either, leading only to ostracization and disgrace. I wonder, if one is outside of all recognized models of community — as some writers are, or at least feel themselves to be — is it possible to know you really exist?
It’s unlikely that a gnawing sense of being unborn tops the neuroses of most writers these days, but I’d argue that Beckett’s Jungian insight is more commonly known today as anxiety. In the last century, writers largely handled it by drinking. Beckett’s mentor and friend in Paris, a certain genius named James Joyce, was so fond of the drink he had to forbid himself from starting before six o’ clock—but when dark came, he was as game as Hunter S. Thompson.
I think the daily act of sitting alone for hours and purposely conjuring up emotions and disturbing memories — precisely the kinds of things people use Percocet, vodka, food, and Netflix to forget — serves as the ideal petri dish for anxiety. Parks mentions that Barnes and Simenon also suffered from panic attacks. Without doing any real research, I can add the names David Foster Wallace, Philip Roth, Virginia Woolf, John Steinbeck. These are all prose writers, of course. If we begin to add the names of the poets, the list gets real long, real fast.
In his essay on Peter Matthiessen, Parks describes a scene in the novel In Paradise, where “pilgrims” are meditating at Auschwitz in a kind of retreat/holocaust remembrance ritual. Parks writes, “The practice of meditation has the effect of breaking down the ego; in hours of silence, the mind intensely focused on breath and body in the present moment, there is no place for the narrative chatter that feeds the constant construction of the self.” In some ways this is not a bad description of the idealized writing state. I think it would certainly fit a kind of Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones, Zen-inspired, Esalen Institute vision of creative writing. But whereas Zen meditation is about an empty mind, writing fiction requires a full page, and that means cultivating lots of narrative chatter, ultimately pulling you back into yourself.
But just as writing may induce multifarious forms of anxiety, the right words are also a middle finger to the dying of the light. The God of the Old Testament announced himself to Moses with the startling declaration, “I am who I am.” And writing, at its best, is like that: a declaration of existence, an expression of self-hood and — when we’re not shaking with fear as Moses did — a reminder that heaven is not as far from us as it often seems.
Not all books can make us cry and those that do are often so shamefully sentimental that we can’t easily admit to reading them, let alone crying with them. This, however, is not the case with Julian Barnes’s Levels of Life, a novella-length text in three chapters, which produces in its reader tears of the most literary kind.
The book’s first two chapters concern the adventures of a set of nineteenth century figures from England and France: the most popular actress of the time, Sarah Bernhardt, the photographer Gaspard-Félix Tournachon (popularly known as Nadar), and Fred Burnaby, a colonel in the Royal Horse Guards, a cavalry regiment of the British Army. All of those characters are devoted aeronauts and are fascinated by balloons and their machinations. Levels of Life begins in a cheerful mood, with the ascent of the trio from the ground in separate balloons. Some of them are accompanied by bottles of champagne, others by copies of the London Times and all with high hopes of witnessing great landscapes.
Burnaby and his French friends seem to have the best time, clinking their glasses and discussing whether the monarchy or the republic is the better system. Barnes does an excellent job in describing the differences between the aeronautical cultures on two sides of the English Channel. In England the Aeronautical Society’s members include a number of lords and dukes while in France the Societe des aeronautes, founded by Nadar, is more of an artistic society, listing Alexandre Dumas, père et fils, and George Sand among its members.
There are descriptions of the first balloon and the pleasure it brought to aeronauts in the eighteenth century. There are snapshots of accidents and violence, too. A young man dies in Newcastle, falling to earth from “a height of several hundred feet,” his internal organs bursting out on to the ground. Then there are references to ballooning’s cultural significance (according to Nadar the three supreme emblems of modernity are “photography, electricity and aeronautics”) as well as the political hopes it had inspired. Victor Hugo and progressives in France believed that balloons could bring democracy to the world. Barnes doesn’t seem to share their enthusiasm. Aeronautics did not lead to democracy, he jokes, “unless budget airlines count.”
There is an enjoyable portrait of Nadar, “a journalist, caricaturist, photographer, balloonist, entrepreneur and inventor, a keen registerer of patents and founder of companies.” His fascinating life story floats above Victorian history, drifting from one project to another, very much like a balloon. He arises as a man more interested in the vertical than the horizontal. Nadar’s fascination with height and Paris sewers are accompanied by Barnes’s own memories in Paris as a young man.
After “The Sin of Height” and “On The Level,” a rather flat chapter in which Barnes dramatizes the relationship between Burnaby and Bernhardt, we reach “The Loss of Depth.” Here, the cheerful historical figures of the book leave the stage to a couple (Barnes and his wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh who died in 2007) who play the tragic last days of their relationship before our eyes. Kavanagh is a co-author of Levels of Life in the sense that it is above all her memory that defines and gives meaning to this text.
Barnes and Kavanagh have loved each other intensely for many decades:
We were together for thirty years. I was thirty-two when we met, sixty-two when she died. The heart of my life; the life of my heart. And though she hated the idea of growing old — in her twenties, she thought she would never live past forty — I happily looked forward to our continuing life together: to things becoming slower and calmer, to collaborative recollection.
Reading this chapter one feels as if the balloon in which they began traveling together all those years ago is now occupied only by the reader and Barnes whose job it is to look at the distance they traveled as a couple. The thirty seven days between the diagnosis of Kavanagh’s illness and her death form the emotional core here, as do Barnes’s experiences of desperation and grief.
It is the abrupt and sudden severing of a relationship that makes Barnes’s prose so unbearably intense. “You put together two people who have not been put together before,” he muses, “then, at some point, sooner or later, for this reason or that, one of them is taken away. And what is taken away is greater than the sum of what was there.”
What was taken from him with Kavanagh’s death had been alluded to in different texts, but in a decisively covert manner. A quick look at some of the titles of Barnes’s most recent books gives a good idea about his experience: Nothing to Be Frightened Of, The Sense of an Ending. Although both of these books have death as their central theme Levels of Life is the first text in which Barnes tries to come to terms with the experience of losing Kavanagh.
In his essay “The Philosophy of Composition” Edgar Allan Poe argued that the death of a beautiful woman is “unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world.” That Kavanagh is dead and Barnes, a master of the English language and certainly one of the more significant innovators of the English novel, is here to tell the tale of her death, is sufficient to make these recollections poetical. For Barnes, the death of a loved one had become a source of inspiration, however painful that experience might have been. Completed four years after Kavanagh’s death, his recollections reflect not only his ongoing feeling of desperation but also his fascination with the idea of death. It is as if Barnes, who had loved words and his wife more than anything else in the world, had to endure the pain of losing one of his beloved things. This leaves him alone with the other thing: literature.
Levels of Life ends, surprisingly I think, in a light and cheerful note, with the image of France. His devoted readers will know that French culture is one of Barnes’s intellectual passions which, one by one, continue to receive the delicate attention of this unique writer.