Julian Barnes explores grief and ballooning in ‘Levels of Life’

Levels of Life. Julian Barnes. Knopf. 128 pages. $22.95.
Levels of Life. Julian Barnes. Knopf. 128 pages. $22.95.

”There is a German word, Sehnsucht, which has no English equivalent; it means the longing for something,” writes Julian Barnes in his slim, stunning new work Levels of Life. Even in his salad days, Barnes — winner of the 2011 Booker Prize for The Sense of an Ending — had an affinity for longing and loss, already envisioning and articulating how they looked and how they felt. If it is any consolation for him — and it probably isn’t — here he has gotten it spot-on.

The longing and loss Barnes writes about is for Pat Kavanagh, his wife of 30 years, who died suddenly of a brain tumor in 2008. And yet Levels of Life is not a grief memoir per se. Spare, taut and experimental, much like his 1984 post-modern breakout work, Flaubert’s Parrot, it integrates fiction, essay and some historical bits. It explores love and loss by way of ballooning, or as it was first known, aeronautics. Barnes, who has had a playful way with form in all his 20 works, wryly acknowledges here, “You put two things together that have not been put together before; and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.”

His decision to come at his point obliquely rather than straight on may sound pedantic, even odd, but as he wrote in his 1989 gem, The History of the World in 10-1/2 Chapters, “art proceeds by indirection.” Grief destroys. Art creates.

Barnes takes us aloft in the book’s first section, “The Sin of Height,” showing us ballooning in its heyday. Dashing and romantic, it offered the thrill of the new. And it was fraught with danger, not just physically — “A gas balloon might explode. A fire balloon, unsurprisingly, could catch fire” — but for some, morally. “Icarus messed with the Sun God: that was a bad idea, too.” For some, like Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, the risk was worthwhile.

Tournachon, aka Nadar, was the 19th century French photographer who brought two things together for the first time — aeronautics and photography. Before NASA’s Voyager and taking pictures with our cellphones, Nadar’s images, taken from a hot air balloon, were the first allowing us to “look at ourselves from afar, to make the subjective suddenly objective: this gives us a psychic shock.”

Oh so lightly, Barnes likens that sense of discovery, that giddy sense of height, to falling in love. So it is in the second section, “On the Level,” in which he puts together two historic figures who have not been together before, actress Sarah Bernhardt and Colonel Fred Burnaby of the Royal Horse Guards. Romance ensues, all perfectly delightful for Bernhardt. But Burnaby, an avid adventurer and a blustering sort of Englishman, falls hard. He dreams of their life together “as a couple, putting things together, soaring.” Ah, but Bernhardt is coquettish, French and inclined to boredom. She gently spurns him. Burnaby’s “pain was to last several years.”

But Levels of Life is no more about Burnaby per se than it is about Barnes. Writing from a height, allowing us a broader perspective, the author warns, “[W]hen we soar, we can also crash. There are few soft landings. Every love story is a potential grief story.”

We now enter the book’s last section “The Loss of Depth,” Barnes’ own crash landing after the death — he abhors the term “passing” — of his wife. In a piercing revisiting of his earlier motif, Barnes writes, “You put two people together. Then, at some point, 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.”

He describes his descent after his wife’s death, his friends’ well-meaning attempts to jolly him out of his grief or “The Silent Ones” who avoid speaking of Kavanagh altogether. Barnes never mentions her by name in the book, but, he writes, he talks to her daily. “This feels as normal as it does necessary.”

Levels of Life is deceptively compact — a spare 124 pages — but takes us deep. It is as intimate a book as Barnes has ever written, but its beauty — and art — comes from elegant restraint. Still grieving, still longing himself, Barnes, like Nadar from above in his hot air balloon, has given us a perspective never seen before.

Ellen Kanner is the author of “Feeding the Hungry Ghost: Life, Faith and What to Eat for Dinner.”

Read more Books stories from the Miami Herald

 <span class="cutline_leadin">STONE MATTRESS: </span>Nine Tales. Margaret Atwood. Nan A. Talese. Doubleday. 288 pages. $25.95.


    Past looms large in new stories from Margaret Atwood

    In Margaret Atwood’s new collection, the past looms large for aging protagonists, but sympathy and regret abound, too.

  • What are you reading now?

    “I just finished Claire DeWitt and The City of the Dead by Sara Gran, which I love, love, loved. It’s a mystery set in New Orleans shortly after the storm and solved by girl detective, Claire DeWitt, who applies her special method of detection which is pretty much based on yoga and Buddhism combined with the altered mind states of drugs, drink, dreams and growing up in Brooklyn.”

 <span class="cutline_leadin">WHAT STAYS IN VEGAS:</span> The World of Personal Data — Lifeblood of Big Business C — and the End of Privacy as We Know It. Adam Tanner. PublicAffairs. 316 pages. $27.99.


    ‘What Stays in Vegas’ examines data packaging and the end of privacy

    Journalist explains how data packaging makes American companies the biggest threat to privacy.

Miami Herald

Join the

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category