Tag Archives: Julian Barnes

Because I mourn…

I read a Julian Barnes book for the first time this year. Despite being into literary fiction, I always thought Barnes was too highbrow for me. But I discovered Levels of Life, his latest work, while browsing at my favourite Kentish Town bookshop and came across a passage that so resonated with me, I decided to buy it just to be able to re-read it at home.

In the third and last part of the book, Barnes talks poignantly about how he still struggles with the grief over the loss of his wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh, who died in 2008. Thirty years ago, in one of his novels, Barnes had to imagine and describe the feelings of grief of a widowed character in his sixties; only to be surprised by the accuracy of his words, when his own turn came.

Here is an excerpt:

“…Afterwards comes the madness. And then the loneliness: not the spectacular solitude you had anticipated, not the interesting martyrdom of widowhood, but just loneliness.You expect something almost geological – vertigo in a shelving canyon – but it’s not like that ; it’s just misery as regular as a job… [People say] you’ll come out of it…And you do come out of it, that’s true. But you don’t come out of it like a train coming out of a tunnel, bursting through the Downs into sunshine and that swift, rattling descent to the Channel; you come out of it as a gull comes out of an oil slick; you are tarred and feathered for life.”

Often the loss of a loved one, even if they are alive, can also feel like death, and the dark times that follow like one long mourning you may or may not come out of. The loss of dreams can be another form of death, the letting go of something that could have been and now will never be.

I have lost many of both.

What if there is a yet unrevealed alternative path to happiness you had not envisaged? We all live in conviction that the happy ending we had foreseen for ourselves was the only ending possible. Once the script is changed, and we realise it cannot be achieved, we struggle to accept any other.

In Levels of Life, Barnes asks the “unanswerable question: what is ‘success’ in mourning? Does it lie in remembering or in forgetting? A staying still or a moving on? Or some combination or both?”

I reckon the intensity of one’s grief is always in direct proportion to the intensity of the love there once was. That is why while I feel for Barnes’ suffering, I also envy him for having known such a great love even death cannot obliterate.

The intensity of a love that transcends our earthy existence; to be able to love and be loved in this undying manner – does it exist, and, if it does, can there be anything more rewarding in life?

This reminds me of German singer Herbert Grönemeyer‘s Der Weg. Grönemeyer, a widower, wrote the song with his late wife in mind and the love they shared. The ending words always make me crumble:

Habe dich sicher / I have you safe
In meiner Seele / Inside my soul
Ich trag dich bei mir / I’ll carry you with me
Bis der Vorhang fällt / Until the curtain falls

Ich trag dich bei mir / I’ll carry you with me
Bis der Vorhang fällt / Until the curtain falls

Sometimes, Barnes says, “you want to go on loving the pain.”

Well, I say, sometimes you just need to go on loving. Until the curtain falls.

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Why Sehnsucht

I first came across the word Sehnsucht [ˈzeːnˌzʊχt ]I when I was studying German literature at uni. Even though the word denotes something unspecifiable, no other word can better describe the motives behind the launch of this blog and my search for an answer I may never find.

A yearning for the unknown. Don’t we all carry it.

From Wikipedia: “Sehnsucht […] is a German noun translated as “longing”, “yearning”, or “craving”, or in a wide sense a type of “intensely missing”. However, Sehnsucht is difficult to translate adequately and describes a deeper emotional state. […] Sehnsucht represents thoughts and feelings about all facets of life that are unfinished or imperfect, paired with a yearning for ideal alternative experiences. It has been referred to as ‘life’s longings’; or an individual’s search for happiness while coping with the reality of unattainable wishes. “

From Levels of Life by Julian Barnes: “There is a German word, Sehnsucht, which has no English equivalent; it means ‘the longing for something’. It has Romantic and mystical connotations; C.S. Lewis defined it as the ‘inconsolable longing’ in he human heart for ‘we know not what’. […] The longing for something – or, in our case, for someone.”

What do you yearn for? Do you sometimes long for the longing itself. Because longing feels like being in love. Like the promise of a hot cup of tea on a cold rainy day. Like the memory of a silent hug from a dear friend who said nothing but saw everything when you were broken inside.