I have read two books over the last three months that couldn’t be any more different to each other. One is Levels of Life by Julian Barnes and the other is Proud by Gareth Thomas. There are however, several similarities in the content; firstly the loss of a wife albeit in different circumstances, and then the thoughts of both men on suicide in the aftermath. Other than that they are poles apart.
Levels of Life is part memoir on the death of Pat Kavanagh, Barnes literary agent and his wife of 30 years, and Proud is the story leading up to and in the wake of Thomas ‘coming out’ to his wife and then to the World as a homosexual international rugby player
Barnes intertwines his grief with a fictional tale of love between an English colonel and a French actress, who both existed in the mid-19th Century and are drawn together by hot air ballooning, it is also part documentary about other early hot air balloonist and the first aerial photography. He is also brutally honest about several things including the attitude of his friends after Pat’s death. Thomas leads a double life in the beginning even lying to himself. He leaves us in no doubt about the harsh reality and the importance of rugby in poor areas of South Wales, to the point of it almost being a religion. We soon understand the importance to Wales and Thomas of their national pride and of being part of such an intense, masculine and physical sport. But it’s also about the brotherhood between the hardest of hard men who accept him after his eventual honesty about his sexuality.
These books have had an impact on me in different ways. They have both taught me that if we stay strong we can move on with our lives in some kind of format and overcome whatever is thrown at us. Barnes’ writing is very intelligent and he has woven subjects together that compliment but are different to each other. I have used a variation of his style in a memoir I’m writing called Living in Shadow, and a few extracts are included in the site section called MY WRITING. Thomas simply outlines his struggle to be honest with his wife and his team mates, about being attracted to other men in a game that couldn’t be more testosterone fuelled even if it was possible.
Julian Barnes – Levels of Life
“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. We’ve work to do – not grief‑work such as the author’s, but work all the same.
Blake Morrison 10th April 2013
Gareth Thomas – Proud
He wrote: “A form of madness gripped me that first night after Jemma left. I needed her presence, so I invented it. I climbed into her wardrobe, and sprayed her favourite perfume, Chanel’s Coco Mademoiselle, around the interior.
“I pulled her clothes off the hangers and shelves, and buried myself in them. In my warped state of mind, it was my only way of getting her back. I sensed her spirit, savoured her scent. I was in her space, her sphere.
“I missed her so badly, and hated myself for what I had inflicted on her.”
Gareth Thomas 11th September 2014