There’s a great passage in Tobias Wolff’s autobiographical novel Old School, in which a pompous young teacher called Ramsey asks Robert Frost whether form really matters any more: isn’t writing that is spontaneous, even disorderly, a better way to reflect the traumas of modern-day experience? Frost’s reply is devastating: “I lost my nearest friend in the one they called the Great War. So did Achilles lose his friend in war, and Homer did no injustice to his grief by writing about it in dactylic hexameters … Such grief can only be told in form … Without it you’ve got nothing but a stubbed-toe cry – sincere, maybe, for what that’s worth, but with no depth or carry. No echo. You may have a grievance but you do not have grief.”
Julian Barnes’s new book is, in part, about the grief he suffered (and continues to suffer) after the death of his wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh, in 2008. On the matter of form, he is with Frost, not Ramsey. If it has taken him several years to express his grief in writing, whereas Joan Didion, for example, completed a book about the death of her husband within 12 months, that’s not because he was lost for words (he wrote hundreds of thousands of them in a diary) but because he needed to find the right form. His wife didn’t enjoy public attention: a confessional memoir wouldn’t have suited. The category-defying book he has written looks disjointed at first, until its different themes gradually converge.
“You put together two things that have not been put together before,” it begins, “and the world is changed.” That’s true of love but also of art. Ezra Pound made the combination of disparate things a principle of imagism, as in his poem on a station of the Paris Métro: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd:/Petals on a wet, black bough.” Faces and petals make an immediate visual match. The themes that preoccupy Barnes – love and ballooning (and grief and photography) – take a little longer to line up but discovering how they do is half the pleasure.
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