Jonathan Cape, £10.99 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

Levels of Life, By Julian Barnes

Like its author's heroes, this hybrid work of fact and fiction touches both heights and depths

Julian Barnes would appear to be the quintessence of O Lucky Man, but there are highs and lows in every life. Levels of Life reveals the rich geology of Barnes's soul and excavates the darkest emotional depths.

In his novel Arthur & George, Arthur's Mam acquires a lodger: the poet and scholar Bryan Charles Waller, a man "far too easy and charming with life itself, dammit". Barnes's early novels are a bit like this. Metroland and Before She Met Me, bristling with artistry and promise, gained him a call-up to the 1983 squad of Granta's Best of Young British Novelists. There he is in the team photo, centre back row, suavely resplendent, wearing a wryly subversive thin red tie, next to a butch Adam Mars-Jones, but far enough away from troublemakers Ian McEwan and Martin Amis - who seem to be discussing a bigger-league game plan.

As the 2013 youth team of British "Best ofs" prepares to take its position next month, it's interesting to note how many of the first intake have become household names, none more so than Barnes. After being short-listed three times, he won the Man Booker Prize in 2011 for The Sense of an Ending, a novel about memory, fallibility and history. Barnes has never been one to respect the cane-wielding authority of History - "the lies of the victors" (interestingly, "the lays of the victors" in Metroland), "the self-delusions of the defeated" or "a raw onion sandwich, it repeats, it burps" - but in The Sense of an Ending, History is given a magisterial bloody nose.

From the sharp-witted vitality of his schooldays, Tony Webster's "peaceable" life turns into a "short history of humiliation" as an entirely unforeseen narrative emerges from a small, reckless act. As his brilliant but suicidal friend Adrian Finn puts it: "history is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation". Tony is floored by the deceptions of memory, punch-drunk with grief and remorse, unloved, left with the dregs of "great unrest".

In Barnes's debut Metroland, narrator Christopher Lloyd's glass is overflowing with the uniqueness and aspiration of a priapic 16-year-old: "there were more meanings, more interpretations, a greater variety of available truths. Things contained more". His Paris jaunt is a journey to discover "a vivid, explosive, enriching self-knowledge". It is May 1968, and the Paris students are threatening to burn down the city, an event that shook the world, while Christopher is quietly losing his virginity to a French girl. Broader politics are of no interest to him, only Art and the "imaginative sympathy" of love, or as Barnes puts it in "Parenthesis" in A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters: "this tiny precise pleasure of the night".

In Arthur & George, Barnes's historical recreation of a miscarriage of justice and an unlikely relationship between two late 19th-century British gentlemen, Arthur's method of controlling narrative is to conceive the ending of a story first: "how can you make sense of the beginning unless you know the ending?" The Sense of an Ending is bleakly elegiac, almost cruelly final. Blood cannot flow backwards; time cannot be reversed unless it's a trick of nature like the Severn Bore, running upstream creating a temporal illusion.

With sudden new memories, however, fresh narratives emerge and perhaps the morbid winter of Tony's soul should be read in the context of Metroland's spring, and Christopher's resolute, conclusive happiness: "People say that happiness is boring. Not for me"; and "perhaps it really was all all right?" Or perhaps not. There are no easy answers; our certainties are merely whimsical, and all we can say about history is "something happened".

Our fluid, slippery, metamorphic state and life's potential for catastrophic breakdown are explored in Levels of Life, a synthesis of history, fiction and memoir. The book is a meditation on perspective, emotional and physical, and explores man's early attempts to escape gravity by ballooning at a time when flight was deemed a sin. The aeronaut was visiting God's space and attempting to colonise it, looking down at earth from a great height. Ballooning was enlightening, progressive, a "sudden superiority", and allowed us to "look at ourselves better, with increasing truth".

But, like memory, height can be dangerous. You can crash and burn. As with Arthur & George, Barnes is meticulous with historical detail, taking delight in unexpected connections with history's eccentric mysteries, and seamlessly creating vivid narratives which are fictional embellishments.

We witness Colonel Fred Burnaby, 17-stone "balloonatic", falling hopelessly in love with the French actress Sarah Bernhardt and being liberated by the weightlessness of love which confers the "uttermost freedom" in a "silent moral space". Love gives air, exaltation, uplift; we aspire to the heightened state and yet "when we soar we can also crash". Bernhardt finds this stiff, comically diffident Englishman faintly ridiculous and she cannot accept a proposal of marriage from someone emotionally heavier than air. Fred is ill-equipped to deal with his plunge into despair.

"Every love story is a potential grief story". It is the third and final section of this compact, precise and beautiful book that hits you in the solar plexus and leaves you gasping for air. "The Loss of Depth" is Barnes's account of losing Pat Kavanagh, his wife of 30 years: "the heart of my life; the life of my heart".

Grief is banal and yet unique, and pain beyond words can only be expressed metaphorically. In ballooning's infancy, a historian recounts the impact of a young man who had dropped to his death from a height of several hundred feet.

Barnes describes his loss in the same way, as a long falling, "conscious all the time", and landing "feet first in a rose bed with an impact that has driven you in up to the knees and whose shock has caused your internal organs to rupture and burst forth from your body". Memory fails as "grief reconfigures time, its length, its texture, its function".

Two people come together and the world is changed. When one of them is taken away what is lost is greater than the sum of what was there. Barnes mourns Pat "uncomplicatedly and absolutely", and misses her "in every action, and in every inaction".

It's an unrestrained, affecting piece of writing, raw and honest and more truthful for its dignity and artistry, every word resonant with its particular pitch. It defies objectivity. Anyone who has loved and suffered loss, or just suffered, should read this book, and re-read it, and re-read it.

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...