4 May 2013

Julian Barnes’ ‘Levels of Life’

Levels of Life is the second book by Julian Barnes to appear in six months, Through the Window having been the subject of a post here as recently as January. His new book, only 118 pages long, is in three parts.

The first, The Sin of Height, is a series of vignettes about the history of ballooning in the years before the rise of heavier-than–air machines. By coincidence, a book devoted to the same subject, Richard Holmes’ Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air, appeared within a few weeks of Levels of Life. As well as introducing the reader to Nadar’s The Giant (above), Fred Burnaby, an English military man and amateur balloonist, and the actress Sarah Bernhardt, Barnes establishes the perils as well as the pleasures of unnatural ascent. Anyone who has read Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love (or particularly if they saw the film) will need little reminder of the consequences of a fall from a great height. Any Francophile will enjoy the description of Burnaby’s supper when a rare northerly leads to an unplanned descent in Normandy:
omelette aux oignons, sautéed pigeon with chestnuts, vegetables, Neufchâtel cheese, cider, a bottle of Bordeaux and coffee. Afterwards, the village doctor arrived, and the butcher with a bottle of champagne. Burnaby lit a fireside cigar and reflected that ‘a balloon descent in Normandy was certainly preferable to one in Essex.’
The second part, On the Level, describes the 17-stone Burnaby’s pursuit of the five-foot Bernhardt in Paris in the 1870s.
You put together 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.
But, despite their both being larger than life characters and his whetting her appetite for aeronautics, the Divine Sarah has no wish to settle down with Capitaine Fred.
Every love story is a potential grief story. If not at first, then later. If not for one, then for the other. Sometimes for both.
In the final and longest part, The Loss of Depth, Barnes describes the unleveling of his life after his wife of 30 years, Pat Kavanagh, succumbed in a matter of weeks in 2008 to an aggressive brain cancer. Its title derives from our modern lack of belief in an underworld where it might be possible to be reunited with the departed. Although Barnes writes unsparingly, it seems intrusive to quote from such a personal account. And the metaphors which run through Levels of Life don’t need labouring here either.

Barnes revisits certain themes throughout the book, one of them being Essex – not exotic, Burnaby tells Madame Sarah. Another is the symbolist painter Odilon Redon (1840-1916), who was born near Bordeaux in SW France, (Eye Balloon 1878 and Portrait of Mme Redon c 1911, below).

In the natural order of things, children expect to outlive their parents and perhaps evolution has left widows better equipped to cope with their state, just as it has given females greater life expectancy than males. But life expectancy is a statistic, not a guarantee to individuals. After I finished Levels of Life, Robert Peston’s account of his recently becoming a widower, also due to cancer, appeared in the Daily Telegraph. Any man or woman in a long-term relationship with a man or a woman should read both men’s stories. One can only hope that Peston and Barnes will, in time, both have the luck of a northerly wind.


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