Review: Levels of Life, by Julian Barnes

Levels of LifeSynopsis: You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed. In Levels of Life Julian Barnes gives us Nadar, the pioneer balloonist and aerial photographer; he gives us Colonel Fred Burnaby, reluctant adorer of the extravagant Sarah Bernhardt; then, finally, he gives us the story of his own grief, unflinchingly observed. This is a book of intense honesty and insight; it is at once a celebration of love and a profound examination of sorrow.


Title: Levels of Life
Author: Julian Barnes
Publisher: Vintage
Pub Date: 3rd April 2013
Pages: 128
ISBN: 9780099584537

Rating: 4stars

After reading Sense of an Ending, I immediately became a Julian Barnes fan. I absolutely loved the book and was adamant that I’d read everything else he wrote.

Fast-forward a few years and Levels of Life is the first Barnes book I’ve read since. In true bookworm fashion, there are simply too many books in the world and too many authors that I have had to read before I managed to 1.) purchase another book; and 2.) read it.

Once I got around to it, I set everything up properly to start reading. I knew it would be thought-provoking and beautifully written and wanted to give the book the attention it deserved. I holed myself up in a coffee shop, ordered my honey latte and lemon tart, and opened the book; it was time to be blown away.

If you’ve read Barnes’s books before, you’ll be well acquainted with the tripartite structure and the wry indirectness of his style. I had expected to be impressed, delighted, moved – instead, I was just confused. The first third is what I can only describe as a historical essay around ballooning and the ‘aerostatic photographs’ taken in 1858 by the French balloonist, Nadar. Though informative and well written with some nice quotes, I was a little hurt. This was definitely not the provocative prose that I was expecting.

“…to look at ourselves from afar, to make the subjective suddenly objective”

The second part of the book is a short story describing an ill-fated love affair between Burnaby and Bernhardt. The weakest part of the novel, the only connection is the characters captivation with ballooning. What’s worse was the consistent attempt at driving home parallels between ballooning and love.

“Why do we so constantly aspire to love? Because love is the meeting point of truth and magic. Truth, as in photography; magic, as in ballooning.”

Things were getting a little tough. My coffee was finished, my lemon tart demolished; I didn’t think I could bring myself to read any more. I was inconsolable, would I have to take Julian Barnes off my favourite author list? How could this happen? Knowing it would take a miracle for Barnes to turn things around, I started to read the third and final part.

It is safe to say Julian Barnes did not let me down. With writing is so intense it is difficult to meet its gaze, he discusses the grief he felt on the death of his wife, Pat Kavanagh, who died of cancer in 2008.

Grief is a human experience that is regularly evaded or met with silence; discussed with detachment or made light of to spare everyone else’s feelings. Barnes rejects all of these social etiquettes and writes with a simple, yet exact honesty.

“…what was taken away is greater than the sum of what was there. This may not be mathematically possible; but it is emotionally possible.”

Nothing could have prepared me for the paralysingly direct emotion depicted in the final part of the novel; Barnes had not only pulled off a miracle, he had completely and utterly ruined me. Within a few pages, I knew this wasn’t something I could read in public. The narrative was too honest, too emotive, too private to fully appreciate in an open space. I found myself skimming over the worst of it to save the other visitors in the café from having to deal with my own grief. In the end, I went home and cocooned myself in bed to continue reading; I needed my own safe space to let the words really sink in.

“Nature is so exact, it hurts exactly as much as it is worth, so in a way one relishes the pain, I think. If it didn’t matter, it wouldn’t matter.”

The final third of Levels of Life is the reason why I’m keeping the book on my shelf. Don’t read this if all you want is an engaging story. Read it because it is an honest and haunting account of grief; a simple telling for its own sake, in the way that perhaps only Julian Barnes could tell it.

“This is what those who haven’t crossed the tropic of grief often fail to understand: the fact that someone is dead may mean that they are not alive, but doesn’t mean that they do not exist.”

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