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Julian Barnes“There are two essential kinds of loneliness: that of not having found someone to love, and that of having been deprived of the one you did love. The first kind is worse. Nothing can compare to the loneliness of the soul in adolescence. I remember my first visit to Paris in 1964; I was eighteen. Each day I did my cultural duty — galleries, museums, churches; I even bought the cheapest seat available at the Opéra Comique (and remember the impossible heat up there, the impossible sightlines, and the impossible-to-comprehend opera). I was lonely in the Métro, on the streets, and in the public parks where I would sit on a bench by myself reading a Sartre novel, which was probably about existential isolation. I was lonely even among those who befriended me. Remembering those weeks now, I realize that I never went upwards — the Eiffel Tower seemed an absurd, and absurdly popular, structure — but I did go down. I visited the Paris sewers, entering from somewhere near the Pont de l’Alma for a guided boat tour; and from the Place Denfert-Rochereau I descended into the catacombs, my candle lighting up the neat banks of femurs and solid cubes of skulls.

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 the human heart for ‘we know not what’. It seems rather German to be able to specify the unspecifiable. The longing for something — or, in our case, for someone. Sehnsucht describes the first kind of loneliness. But the second kind comes from the opposite condition: the absence of a very specific someone. Not so much loneliness as her-lessness.”


From the new book Levels of Lifeby Julian Barnes.

As any fairly consistent reader of this blog will know, one of the books I’ve enjoyed most recently has been Barnes’s meditation on mortality Nothing to Be Frightened Of. It’s an almost preternaturally honest and self-flagellating look at what death means to someone who doubts both the existence of a personal god and the prospect of an eternal life to come.

Nothing is a darkly philosophical examination of death, bearing all its considerable weight on the cerebellum. (And do your brain a favor by reading it.) But Levels, which Barnes wrote after experiencing the most intimate deprivation of his life, is a story of the heart. The text is part history, part literature, and part memoir — a memoir about the collision between what you know and what you feel when you have been devastated, when your knees have hit the earth, when you have been leveled by life. The final third of the book (that memoir part) is probably the heaviest piece of writing I’ve ever read. Yet its final two pages, and especially its closing thought, are somehow so spiritually resilient, even buoyant, that you’ll turn the final page, glance up, and feel reoriented somewhat positively towards existence.