“Levels of Life” reminds me why we read: to hear other voices and walk in another’s shoes. “Levels of Life” is about death (in a way like no other) and it is extremely sad (but not maudlin). It’s a book written by a correspondent reporting from the abyss of loss, trying to make sense of it all. The first two sections are so matter-of-fact that the third hits you like a ton of bricks. It’s all very quick; 124 pages. It’s all done with Julian Barnes’ deft touch.
“The Sin of Height” skims the highlights of the early attempts to get airborne. We’re in the late 19th Century and Barnes compares and contrasts the efforts of Colonel Fred Burnaby and Felix Tournachon (later Tournadar and then just Nadar) with the science and art of ballooning. Barnes is fascinated by the view from above and the view and attitude of those on the ground—how both perspectives were changed by photography in the name of art and understanding. Getting airborne changed the human perspective. At end of this section, Barnes leaps ahead a century to astronaut William Anders, circling the moon on Christmas Eve in 1968 and photographing the Earth, for the first time, with the moon in the foreground. “To look at ourselves from afar, to make the subjective suddenly objective: this gives us psychic shock,” he writes. But where is Barnes going with all of this?
Actress and ballooning enthusiast Sarah Bernhardt plays a role in the first section, but she moves front and center in the second section, “On the Level,” in which Barnes explores the relationship/courtship between Bernhardt and Fred Burnaby. Barnes imagines their verbal dance, their conversations, their circling each other—and the impact on Burnaby when Bernhardt ultimately goes her own way. These are two very different people whose worlds have come together. His social status allows him access to the star.
“On the Level” reads the most like fiction but by now we are lulled into Barnes’ plain storytelling style so it’s easy to imagine that Burnaby’s pleadings and gentle persuasions were recorded verbatim. “Madam Sarah, we are all incomplete. I am just as incomplete as you. That is why we seek another person. For completion.” Later, Barnes imagines that Burnaby wondered if Bernhardt had been “on the level” with him, whether she had deceived him in any way. “No, Fred Barnaby concluded, she had been on the level. It was he who had deceived himself. But if being on the level didn’t shield you from pain, maybe it was better to be up in the clouds.”
Pain is the topic of the third section, “The Loss of Depth.” Julian Barnes processes the loss of his wife. They had been married for 30 years when she suddenly got ill and died within a few short weeks; 37 days, to be precise. The loss was five years ago. “I was thirty-two when we met, sixty-two when she died. The heart of my life; the life of my heart.”
This section is hard to summarize. Each grieving period is unique, Barnes points out, and it seems to me that Barnes put himself up to that challenge—of detailing that grief and how it was processed. How it is still being processed. There’s no uplift here, just raw pain. Grief is always looking for “new ways to prick you.” Barnes weaves in the themes from the first two sections—love (of course) and yearning and gaining new perspectives from new altitudes, new attitudes and putting things in focus (or not). Clarity is as fleeting as the shadow of your balloon on the cloud below. Your journey through grief is subject to the wind, the breezes, the fates. You are not in control. You might crash. Grief may prompt you to consider managing your own mortal end. Yes, Barnes goes all the way down to the depths, contemplating self-destruction. There is no bottom, only the void.
On the other hand, if you process the emotions just right, you might also be able to float above it all and light a cigar, contemplate how you ended up here, needing to jettison some ballast and hoping to catch a northerly breeze. In fact, Barnes seems to be saying, we should always be wondering: how did I get here, floating in space?
“Levels of Life” is a brilliant book—part memoir, part reflection, part essay, part fiction and full, ironically enough, of life. And very much one of a kind.