I feel a bit like I owe Julian Barnes an apology. You see for some unfathomable reason, known only in the unreachable part of the 90% of my brain that I don’t use, I had decided that he wasn’t an author for me. I think around his Man Booker win and the way everyone was talking about him I created an author who I wouldn’t like, would find dry and miserable and a bit worthy – completely forgetting I had read and loved Arthur and George which resides happily on my bookshelves in the lounge. Imagine then the horror I felt when Rob chose Levels of Life for Hear Read This! and not long after Claire had chosen Flaubert’s Parrot for book club. I decided to start with the short one first…
Vintage Books, paperback, 2014 (2000 edition), fiction, 128 pages, kindly sent by the publisher (almost passed on if Rob hadn’t chosen it for Hear Read This!)
I have to admit that when I started Levels of Life the odds were stacked against it. I had been told that it was a book about ballooning and grief, in particular the grief Barnes has been going through since the death of his wife. Ballooning? And grief? Ballooning and grief? This wasn’t going to work. I was internally chanting ‘thank goodness it is short, thank goodness it is short’. Well silly old me because a book that is indeed about ballooning and grief had me enthralled and then in absolute tears, and I admired every sentence of it. Barnes does something very clever indeed with Levels of Life, and not in a clever pretentious way, by creating three sections (or levels in a way) which link in some ways you would expect and many ways you wouldn’t hazard a clue at.
The first section, around 24 pages, of the book are indeed about the history of ballooning. Now ballooning doesn’t appeal to me; a lot like boats, submarines, cricket (or indeed sport in general), horses (full stop) or talking animals of any variety, it is just a subject I don’t think I have any interest in. Well apparently I am a liar to myself because I found the history of ballooning, in Barnes’ capable hands, utterly fascinating. Who knew? It is the sign of an accomplished author and sparky narration to make anyone interested in something they swear they couldn’t really give two hoots about.
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.
The second section/level of the book is all the love affair of French actress Sarah Bernhardt and English colonel Fred Burnaby, who happened to be two of the pioneers of ballooning. We read about them a little in the first section, yet it is really Gaspard-Félix Tournachon who is in the limelight of that section, here these two lovers become full focus and we look at how independent people might or might not make the ideal couple and tame one another, or possibly not. Again I was gripped by this section, especially by the story of Sarah Bernhardt and her menagerie including a pillow eating python she bought here in Liverpool. I did begin to ponder if Barnes had a mind to write a fictional account of her and used it in this instead, she fully comes to life with Fred and their affair is totally tantalising.
You put two people who have not been put together before; and sometimes the world is changed, sometimes not. They may crash and burn, or burn and crash. But sometimes, something new is made, and then the world is changed. Together, in that first exaltation, that first roaring sense of uplift, they are greater than their two separate selves. Together, they see further, and they see more clearly.
Then everything changes and the real force behind the book comes to the fore as in the third and final section of the book Barnes writes about his grief after the death of his wife, literary agent Pat Kavanagh. Grief is a very, very personal thing and something we are not prone to discussing even though we all go through it. Barnes does something exceptionally brave, though he probably wouldn’t see it as such, in sharing the brutal honesty of how much the loss has affected him. From contemplating suicide to talking to his wife or dreaming her up at night, even though he knows she is dead. He shares his story of grief but also the stories of others and how everyone grieves differently. It is raw, devastating and incredibly moving.
You may here of course be wondering how the ballooning does interlink to it all and this to me added even more depth and, as clichéd as it will sound because of the title of the book, levels to this final section. Firstly there is the slightly obvious motifs of the rise and fall of the balloon, from how at a great height, and in hindsight, we appreciate everything around us etc. Secondly there is the fact that actually loving someone is a risky business, like early ballooning. You might crash and burn, you might soar off into the sunset, their maybe storms and unknown danger ahead. Love comes with risk. There are also the links to earlier moments. Barnes will compare grief to the python overstuffed with pillows Bernhardt has in the second section, he will compare it to the fall to the death one man had who ended up embedded in a flower bed his own legs forcing his internal organs to be ripped out, his world and himself exploding. These all add an extra dimension to the book, so difficult to describe yet so totally affecting.
You put together two people who have not been put together before. Sometimes it is like that first attempt to harness a hydrogen balloon to a fire balloon: do you prefer crash and burn, or burn and crash? But sometimes it works, and something new is made, and the world is changed. Then, at some point, sooner or later, for this reason or that, one of them is taken away. And what is taken away is greater than the sum of what was there. This may not be mathematically possible, but it is emotionally possible.
I can’t quite put into words how brilliant I thought Levels of Life was. In terms of a piece of literature it is incredibly original and so cleverly constructed. Yet there is so much more to this book than it’s amazing construction, it is an emotionally driven and filled work. I don’t think I have read anything so raw and visceral about love and grief. Possibly ever. Having gone through the death of Gran last year this book chimed so much on an emotional level with me I couldn’t stop crying through the final section of the book, though I think anyone who reads this and doesn’t cry probably has a piece of coal where their heart should be, and I am so thankful to Barnes for being as honest as he is and urge you all to go and grab a copy of this book.
Of course I am now feeling a) all the more stupid for writing him off as an author I didn’t like after this mini masterpiece b) very excited about reading Flaubert’s Parrot. I am also pondering which others of his books I should read as it appears Barnes is very much a ‘me’ kind of writer. You can hear more of my thoughts on Hear Read This, along with Kate, Gav and Rob. Who else has read this book and what did you make of it? Can any of you recommend any other books on grief, as this seemed very cathartic for me, that I should look out for? Oh and any recommendations on books about Sarah Bernhardt are most welcome, she sounded fascinating, I could become obsessed!