I’ve had Julian Barnes’ Levels of Life on my shelf for a while and I wish I hadn’t taken so long to read this powerful and moving book.
Levels of Life is a slim book divided into three sections: The Sin of Height, On the Level, and The Loss of Depth. The first gives a brief history of ballooning in the 19th century, focussing on Félix Tournachon who was not just one of the first to occupy the skies, but one of the first to take photographs there. The second section brings two other balloonists, Fred Burnaby and Sarah Bernhardt, together in an imagined story that sees them moving towards marriage. Yet, as Barnes writes, ‘every love story is a potential grief story’ and we follow Barnes’ imaginings of the balloonists’ relationship. Then comes the third section which is Barnes’ essay on his grief after his wife died in 2008, thirty seven days after being diagnosed with a brain tumour.
I struggled with the first section because, despite Barnes’ effortless prose, the paragraphs on balloonists read quite disjointedly. I enjoyed the second section more, especially as I began to see the different strands of the book begin to come slowly together, before the striking and mesmerising final section. The three sections give the book a pleasing pattern, while the motifs of ballooning and photography run throughout the book. I enjoyed these metaphors, with The Sin of Height mirroring the great heights reached when in love, ‘On the Level’ bringing us ‘back to earth’ and reality, while the ‘The Loss of Depth’ brings us underground into the depths of grief and loss.
The third section was the highlight of the book for me, blowing the other sections away with its force and power. Written in raw, heart-wrenching prose, it almost feels emotionally draining reading it – sometimes I wanted to stop but couldn’t because the prose was so beautiful. Barnes has a way of writing – apparent throughout the novel, but at its best in the final section – that pinpoints a feeling and captures it in sparing prose. Despite its rawness, the final section is a considered and honest, yet still private, account of what Barnes felt after his wife’s death. I found this section of the novel so powerful that in some ways I could have done without the other two sections, even though I enjoyed them and appreciate the pattern they give to the book – perhaps I was partly more affected by the third section because of the others, though? Despite my preferences for the last section, I think the book does need to be read in its entirety to fully appreciate it.
Julian Barnes’ Levels of Life is a short, but powerful and resonant book that I can’t recommend enough.
Have you read Levels of Life?