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Levels of Life

Julian Barnes

(Knopf; US: Sep 2013)

Almost all of Julian Barnes’ books are dedicated to his late wife. In most cases the dedication simply reads ‘To Pat’, but there are a few anomalies. His fragmentary 1989 novel A History of the World in 10½ Chapters gives her name in full: ‘To Pat Kavanagh’, but his 2008 book Nothing to be Frightened of is more abbreviated, with ‘to P.’ 


Both of these titles are interesting markers in the backstory of Levels of Life. Nothing to be Frightened of, first published in the spring of 2008, is a study of Barnes’ fear of his own death; in the autumn of that year, Pat Kavanagh passed away just 37 days after being diagnosed with a brain tumor. The dedications in all of Barnes’ subsequent books have been not ‘To Pat’, but ‘for Pat’.


Levels of Life is on one level a meditation on Barnes’ grief, but it’s also a book about love, and about 19th century hot air balloonists. Additionally, it’s an exercise in form, and perhaps an exemplar of the inadequacy of any one literary form for expressing certain sentiments and theses. This was also the case with A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, in which Barnes attempted to define the essence of our civilisation and history by using such forms as historical fiction, epistolary narrative and art criticism.


Levels of Life is organised into three sections. The first, ‘The Sin of Height’, is an essay on early ‘balloonatics’, focussing on the photographer and aeronaut Félix Tournachon, better known as Nadar. The second, ‘On the Level’ is a short story about a relationship between the actress Sarah Bernhardt and the traveller, soldier and sometime balloonist Fred Burnaby. And the final section, ‘The Loss of Depth’, which comprises around half of the book’s length, is Barnes’ examination of his grief, candid to the point that when he moots the idea of suicide he reveals his preferred method (‘a hot bath, a glass of wine next to the taps, and an exceptionally sharp Japanese carving knife.’)


The book is united by the central theme that Barnes presents at the outset: ‘You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed.’ In ‘The Sin of Height’ the subject is Nadar’s juxtaposition of ballooning and photography which resulted in the first aerial photographs. ‘On the Level’ is about the putting together of two people rather than two things, and ‘The Loss of Depth’ follows on in the same way; but this section is not about putting two things, or people, together, but about removing one of two things, or people, that have previously been put together.


Barnes weaves this connecting thread elegantly, not only from section to section but also within each part of the triptych. In ‘The Sin of Height’, he writes of Nadar that ‘in the autumn of 1858, he put together two things that had not been put together before.’ A section break follows, and the next paragraph then begins with the sentence ‘Photography, like jazz, was a sudden, contemporary art which achieved technical excellence very quickly.’ Here, Barnes juxtaposes the unrelated disciplines of jazz and photography and in doing so he drives his metaphor forwards and draws attention to the regularity with which writers string together unconnected ideas and observations as they string words together in sentences.


In ‘On the Level’, Barnes brings together Bernhardt and Burnaby in a fictitious affair; he brings together divergent stories, too, and not only the two separate stories of the actress and the solider, but also further sub-narratives. ‘In parenthesis, another love story’, he writes at one point, and the paragraph that follows, which describes the dysfunctional relationship of a monkey and a parrot contained within the same cage, is indeed inside a pair of brackets.


This is enormously reminiscent of A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, in which the half-chapter is entitled ‘Parenthesis’. This parenthesis is an essay in which Barnes muses on his love for his wife, and then on love itself; she is not named here, just as she is not named in Levels of Life, but she can only be Kavanagh. It’s as though placing love stories inside parentheses is a particular habit of Barnes’.


But in ‘The Loss of Depth’ the love story is entwined in the narrative of grieving rather than parenthetically set aside, and entanglement this is the heart of the book. One almost imagines Barnes writing this section first, and then adding the preceding two as context for its metaphors and allusions. The first few pages of this section are thick with references to the other two – Nadar, Bernhardt, balloons – and it quickly becomes clear that the preceding parts are included in order to augment ‘The Loss of Depth’.


‘Writers believe in the patterns their words make, which they hope and trust add up to ideas, to stories, to truths,’ writes Barnes, having remarked on the fact that Nadar, Burnaby, Bernhardt and Kavanagh all suffered broken legs at various points. As much as a book about grieving, Levels of Life is something of an exercise in, and a study in, form: the history of ‘The Sin of Height’, the fiction of ‘On the Level’ and the personal writing of ‘The Loss of Depth’ each riff on related themes while differing from one another on a formal level.  For Barnes, forms are almost supplementary to patterns, which he finds in life and defines in writing, and he is a master of the execution of these verbal and thematic sequences.

Rating:

Alan Ashton-Smith has a PhD in Humanities and Cultural Studies from the University of London, where the subject of his thesis was Gypsy Punk. He lives in London, and is Live Reviews Editor for the music website Shout4Music.


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