Levels of Life

30 April 2013 Books

Levels of Life

Julian Barnes

“You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed.” With that deceptively simple introduction, Julian Barnes launches his latest book, a meditation on love, truth and mortality. In just 118 pages, this slender volume somehow manages to embody all of Barnes’ obsessions over his 30-year writing career. With a triptych structure reminiscent of previous works, Levels of Life begins with ‘The Sin of Height’. Set in the 19th century, it combines the author’s fascination with France and history with a nascent science of the era: hot-air ballooning. Written in a fragmentary style similar to that of Barnes’ breakthrough book, Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), this first part introduces the most famous French actor of the day, Sarah Bernhardt, and another ‘balloonatic’ Gaspard-Félix Tournachon (otherwise known as Nadar), who became the first person to take aerial photographs in 1858.

This condensed history lesson of early flight and photos in the clouds then swoops lower to take on love and loss in the second part, ‘On the Level’. Here, to reframe Barnes’ opening gambit, the author brings together two people who have not been connected before: the aforementioned Bernhardt and another ballooning enthusiast of the time, the moustachioed Englishman Fred Burnaby. Barnes presents an imagined account of a romance between the two, which takes a predictable trajectory: the lovers soar and then crash. He has his head in the clouds; she is more worldly. And yet, paradoxically, she wants the excitement and danger of a lighter-than-air balloonist lifestyle and refuses to be weighed down by the pedestrian demands of marriage. As always, Barnes writes with understated elegance. He has a way of distilling the essence of character: “She was operatic without needing music” is but one typical sentence.

The third part of the book, ‘The Loss of Depth’, is devoted to his late wife and examines what happens when two things that have come together become unstuck. Barnes has long had a preoccupation with death and has written extensively about the topic, but here he has dispensed with lofty, philosophical musing for a more heartfelt analysis. Grief-stricken, he contemplates the impossibility of solitary happiness, “an implausible contraption that will never get off the ground”, and succumbs to her loss, “everything you do, or might achieve thereafter, is thinner, weaker, matters less. There’s no echo coming back; no texture, no resonance, no depth of field.” A hybrid of fact, fiction and memoir, Levels of Life is vintage Barnes: wry, urbane and nuanced.

» Levels of Life is out now.

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