Levels of Life, by Julian Barnes

I very much admired Julian Barnes’s nonfiction book about facing the prospect of death, Nothing to Be Frightened Of, so I was happy to hear he has a new book somewhat along the same lines coming out. This one is called Levels of Life, and while it’s also about death, it takes a different tack. Nothing to Be Frightened Of is about, among other things, his fear of his own approaching death. Levels of Life at first doesn’t seem to be a book about death at all; instead, it begins with the stories of three nineteenth-century people involved in one way or another with ballooning: Fred Burnaby, Sarah Bernhardt, and Félix Tournachon. Through the stories of these three, he gives a brief, partial history of ballooning, and also talks about the intersections of ballooning and the new field of photography. From there, he moves to a story about a love affair between Fred Burnaby and Sarah Bernhardt. I’m not sure the extent to which the story of this love affair is true, but Barnes tells the story as though it were fiction, creating scenes and dialogue. In his final section, Barnes moves to his own life, telling the story of his grief after his wife’s death. The book brings together widely divergent topics, but Barnes interweaves them beautifully, so the book as a whole makes sense and feels complete. The stories about ballooning and photography are interesting, but they also are important as metaphors — metaphors for the emotional heights of a love affair and the crash back to earth that death and loss can bring. By the time you get to the grief memoir part of the book, it’s clear that Barnes wanted a supporting structure for the difficult story he had to tell, a deeper language with which to describe it.

It’s a very short book — although I didn’t, I could have read it in a day, and there aren’t many books I can read that quickly — and a powerful one. I’m grateful to Barnes for being willing and able to turn the experience of grief into art.


Filed under Books

7 responses to “Levels of Life, by Julian Barnes

  1. I liked Nothing to Be Frightened Of. I read a few reviews of this one that suggested the three-part structure was confusing and didn’t work but from your description it sounds like it works just fine and conveys deeper important meanings than the surface stories. So thanks, I will definitely be reading this one sometime!


    • I definitely don’t think the three-part structure is confusing. It’s possible to say the stories need to be more closely related, but I don’t think that’s true. I’m glad you plan to read it now!


      • Rebecca, Hi !
        I’m a professional reviewer of books. I agree with you that this book is one of the most delightful I’ve read in my life. The three part structure is, to me, an art-form here. It’s not so simple to understand, but that’s the way it has to be. Grief is not that simple either. Nor is love.
        Love your blog, by the way.


  2. I have read very little of Barnes’ non-fiction. I have a collection of his essays that I’ve dipped into occasionally but given how much I love his fiction I should pay the other side of him more attention. I’ll put both of these on the list and try and get round to them sooner rather than later.


  3. It is amazing how often you are reading books I really want to read! I have a copy of this but it’s been pushed out the way by other things since I got it. Now it’s definitely rising to the top of the pile again. I really wanted to read the third part about his wife, though felt that was a bit gossip-mongerish of me!


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