In his newest work, Levels of Life, Man Booker Prize-winning author Julian Barnes has brought together a variance of themes: ‘ballooning, photography, love and grief’. The central theme of the novella is about ‘putting two things, and two people, together, and about tearing them apart’. In his opening paragraph, Barnes muses upon this further: ‘You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed. People may not notice at the time, but that doesn’t matter. The world has been changed nonetheless.’
Levels of Life has been very highly praised by a wealth of critics. The Sunday Times calls it ‘profoundly emotive’, and The Times writes that ‘To read it is a privilege. To have written it is astonishing’. Author Elspeth Barker believes that the work is ‘intricately wrought’, and Joyce Carol Oates finds it ‘often deeply moving’.
The novella has been split into three separate parts – ‘The Sin of Height’, ‘On the Level’ and ‘The Loss of Depth’. The first two sections present a semi-fictionalised story of sorts, all of which is involved with early ballooning, and which follows three characters. The first page of Levels of Life introduces us to Colonel Fred Burnaby, a man just setting off as a passenger on a balloon flight, ‘who weighed seventeen stone, wore a striped coat and a close skullcap… He took with him [on his journey] two beef sandwiches, a bottle of Apollinaris mineral water, a barometer to measure altitude, a thermometer, compass, and a supply of cigars’. We also meet actress Sarah Bernhardt, and Felix Tournachon, a balloonist. Colonel Burnaby finds himself the passenger of Eugene Godard, one of three famous aeronaut brothers. Each character has been thoroughly developed, and the way in which they interact with one another is fascinating.
The details of early flight which Barnes sets out in Levels of Life are absolutely fascinating, as is the way in which he portrays its adaptation over time as the technology changed and new advances were made in the field: ‘There were multiple attempts, over that first century of flight, to master this uncontrollable bag with its dangling basket’. He also focuses upon early photography, something which Tournachon – known in the industry as ‘Nadar’ – adored. Barnes describes the way in which photography was a ‘sudden, contemporary art which achieved technical excellence very quickly’. Throughout, his metaphors and similes are often beautiful, and he has a stunning grasp of the language which he uses and the world which he portrays. The historical details which Barnes has made use of are so well set out that the whole has the power to sweep the reader into a whole new era.
A slight variation on the central theme has been used within each section, and each begins with a variation of the same sentence. This is a technique which allows Barnes to seamlessly blend the whole together whilst still encompassing new and separate ideas, thus creating a series of linked ideas which do not feel disjointed in any way. The novella has been thoughtfully considered.
The novella is an incredibly thought-provoking one, particularly as it moves into its final section, which examines the grief which Barnes felt upon the death of his wife: ‘I mourn her uncomplicatedly, and absolutely’. ‘So why do we constantly aspire to love?’ he asks. ‘Because love is the meeting point of truth and magic. Truth, as in photography; magic, as in ballooning’. Sharing such memoirs with the wider world is incredibly brave. His words, particularly in the closing paragraphs, are so honest, and very touching. Levels of Life is a rich and deftly crafted novella, and Barnes is eloquent in everything which he writes. It is a must-read for anyone who has experienced grief, and it is a novella which is sure to make its readers think long after they have finished reading.