Review: Levels of Life, By Julian Barnes

There's life's highs and lows, and then there's ballooning

In 2008, Julian Barnes's wife, Pat Kavanagh, was diagnosed with a brain tumour. She died just 37 days later. They had been together for 30 years. The pain suffered by the private and devoted Barnes is unimaginable. He did not write about it immediately. But the short story "Marriage Lines", in his 2011 collection Pulse, told of the grief of a widower; his Man Booker-winning The Sense of an Ending was his most emotionally intense work, and featured a character driven to suicide; and now here is Levels of Life, a book whose slimness belies its throbbing emotional power.

Levels of Life uses the pioneering of balloon flight and the development of aerial photography as metaphors for the soaring heights, freedom, and imprinting of memories, of love. But there is no disguising the raw pain that pulses throughout; the solitary heartbeat of the one left behind.

The book is divided into three sections. The first, "The Sin of Height", visits three 19th-century ballooning enthusiasts whose lives fleetingly intersected: Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, the pioneer of aerial photo- graphy; Colonel Fred Burnaby of the Royal Horse Guards; and the bohemian French actress Sarah Bernhardt. Here, the euphoria of flight represents the giddy elation of first love. "A freedom subservient to the powers of wind and weather," writes Barnes, and the analogy with the surrender to love is clear. Of course there are risks, but they're a small price to pay for the joy of sailing above ordinary life on a tide of ebullience.

The second section, "On the Level", is a fictionalised account of the affair between Burnaby and Bernhardt. She broke his heart. "Love may not be evenly matched; perhaps it rarely is," Barnes tells us. Burnaby keeps asking himself whether Bernhardt was "on the level". He concludes that she was, but that there are no guarantees in love. That love is often inexplicable is illustrated by an anecdote about a parrot and a monkey in a cage together. The monkey bullies the parrot, plucking its feathers and taunting it mercilessly. And yet, when separated, the parrot grieves for the monkey. Such are the mysteries of love, invisible to outsiders. "On the Level" may represent the settled phase of love, no longer flying with thrill and intoxication, but grounded, with all the comforts that security brings.

The third section, "The Loss of Depth", is harrowing. Barnes allows us to glimpse his own personal grief; a gulf of sorrow in which he calmly contemplated drowning. He meticulously planned his own suicide, should he need to resort to that escape. He relates the reaction of others, some helpful, such as the friend who wrote that the pain is proportionate to the love; and others not, such as those who sought to "solve" him, or chirpily declared he was looking better.

Barnes relates his discovery of the truth of his friend the poet Christopher Reid's words about the discomfort that follows when the bereaved mentions the deceased in company. Anyone who has been bereaved will know that some people expect grief to be finite; something one recovers from, like the flu. Barnes is quietly profound on how time doesn't necessarily diminish sorrow.

"Every love story is a potential grief story," writes Barnes early on. Anyone who has loved and lost can't fail to be moved by this devastating book.

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