Levels of Life Synopsis
‘You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed…’
Julian Barnes’s new book is about ballooning, photography, love and grief; about putting two things, and two people, together, and about tearing them apart. One of the judges who awarded him the 2011 Man Booker Prize described him as ‘an unparalleled magus of the heart’. This book confirms that opinion.
BOOK REVIEW by Tony Ziemek
First up let me declare an interest: I have read just about everything that Julian Barnes has published and am sad enough to have some books in both UK and US editions, because… I liked the covers. For me, there is something in the author’s voice that never fails to resonate and I’m clearly not alone. On www.julianbarnes.com there was an opportunity to buy limited editions of leather and cloth bound editions of Levels of Life for GBP 140 or GBP 260 (according to leather spec and numbering) but they were sold out within days (dammit).
Levels of Life is another slim volume from Julian Barnes that appears a quick read but is so rich with subtle ideas that it slows the eye and speeds the mind.
The first parts of the book are a historically based story (novella? short story? neither really) that is about the sublime and the earth-bound aspects of love. We are back in the late 19th Century world that Barnes finds so absorbing (me too) and we have a potent mix of ballooning, early photography, Sarah Bernhardt, love and amorality.
The story opens with both Sarah Bernhardt and Colonel Fred Burnaby setting off in their respective balloons. The details of early ballooning are fascinating and ridiculous and balance the ethereal theme:
He took with him two beef sandwiches, a bottle of Apollinaris mineral water, a barometer to measure altitude, a thermometer, and a supply of cigars.
Splendid! Meanwhile, the 19th Century’s most famous actress in her balloon:
….drank from a silver goblet. Then they ate oranges and tossed the empty bottle into the Lake of Vincennes. In their sudden superiority, they cheerfully dropped ballast on the groundlings below: a family of English tourists on the balcony of the Bastille Column; later, a wedding party enjoying a rural picnic.
Gently, humorously, they ascend like lovers above the rules and concerns of the earthbound. Of course, there is a smooth or bumpy return to earth or a crash:
So why do we constantly aspire to love? Because love is the meeting point of truth and magic. Truth, as in photography; magic, as in ballooning.
I found this passage a little clunky, as though it was aimed at the inattentive kids in the back row, but for the purpose of the review it is a concise summary and leads us to the second part of the book where we lose altitude and the third that is essentially an essay on grief.
Julian Barnes and Pat Kavanagh were together for 30 years until 2008 when she moved rapidly from diagnosis to death. She was also his literary agent and therefore, a partner on different levels that must intensify the pain of bereavement. Grief, in a more abstracted way was considered in the final essay of his ‘Through the Window’ collection. In Levels of Life it is personal and clear-eyed. In a characteristically light and unassuming style that welcomes in the reader, he states:
Grief, like death, is banal and unique. So, a banal comparison. When you change your make of car, you suddenly notice how many other cars of the same sort are on the road. They register in a way they never did before. When you are widowed, you suddenly notice all the widows and widowers coming towards you.
There are other, perhaps more profound passages to quote and indeed more humorous ones, but I like this low-key, almost suburban style that is not afraid to examine something fundamental. An ‘essay on grief’ is not the sort of description that is likely to entice, but this section of the book is nevertheless absorbing, poignant and strangely enlightening.
Looking back over Levels of Life as a whole, I find it coheres into something magical and profound. Like so many of Mr. Barnes’ work it has images and ideas that will linger in the memory for a lifetime.
BOOK RATING: The Story 5 / 5 ; The Writing 5 / 5
~ Tony Ziemek is the lead editor of Ed Fresh Editorial Services.
Have you read Levels of Life? Do you want to?
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Author Information: Born in Leicester, England, in 1946, Julian Barnes is the author of several books of stories, essays, a translation of Alphonse Daudet’s In the Land of Pain, and numerous novels. His recent publications include The Sense of an Ending, winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize, and Through the Window: Seventeen Essays (and One Short Story). Other titles include Flaubert’s Parrot, A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, Nothing to be Frightened Of, The Lemon Table, Arthur & George, Pulse: Stories and Love, etc.
- Check out Julian Barnes’ website which even has its very own discussion forum.
- Read an interview with Julian Barnes by The Paris Review