It is almost five years since Pat Kavanagh, the literary agent, died of a brain tumour. In that time, Julian Barnes, her husband of 30 years, has published three books: a collection of short stories, a collection of essays on the influence of other writers and a novel, The Sense of an Ending, which won the Booker Prize in 2011.
His new book, Levels of Life, is another hybrid; part essay, part short story and part memoir, the latter of which will generate by far the most interest, as memoirs of the well known in turmoil will do. But it is a mistake to see the book as anything other than whole: an effort by Barnes, using everything he has, to look down on the landscape of loss.
Barnes is at his home in north London. “Grief,” he says, “seems at first to destroy not just all patterns, but also to destroy a belief that a pattern exists.” This changes with the altitude of years. So now here is the pattern and it is extraordinary.
‘[A] courageous, clear-sighted book, which shifts between memoir and elegy as it examines the persistence of family secrets and the fragile interface between innocence and knowledge … [Her mother] did not need to leave her daughter a gun in the end. Her real bequest to Brockes was the psychological freedom to be able to confront the past without inhibition, and to take straight aim at it. The gun is this book.’ Elizabeth Lowry, The Guardian. [Read the whole review]
“The riveting memoir about how a prizewinning British journalist reclaimed her mother’s traumatic past… The story of Brockes’ quest to understand her mother’s past is powerful on its own, but the backdrop against which most of the narrative unfolds—a country with its own history of rapacious violence—makes the book even more poignant and unforgettable.” – Kirkus Reviews
I’m here talking about my book, in London and as I travel around Johannesburg, where some of the story takes place. The book is out in the UK in a few days….click on the still to get to the video. (That’s my mum in the bonnet, looking up at her parents, with Bonza the dog in the foreground. It’s the only photo of that brief family that exists, which is why it always annoyed my mother that you couldn’t see her face).
And here’s the excerpt from the book, running alongside the video in Guardian Weekend:
My mother first tried to tell me about her life when I was about 10 years old. I was sitting at the table doing homework or a drawing; she was standing at the grill cooking sausages. Every now and then the fat from the meat would catch and a flame leap out.
She had been threatening some kind of revelation for years. “One day I will tell you the story of my life,” she said, “and you will be amazed.” I had looked at her in amazement. The story of her life was she was born, she had me, 10 years passed, end of story.
“Tell me now,” I’d said.
“I’ll tell you when you’re older.”
I knew, of course, that she had come from South Africa and had left behind a large family: seven half-siblings, eight if you included a boy who’d died, 10 if you counted the rumour of twins. “You should have been a twin,” said my mother whenever I did something brilliant, like open my mouth or walk across a room. “I hoped you’d be twins, with auburn hair. You could have been. Twins run in the family on both sides.” [Continue reading here]