”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.”