Julian Barnes latest work is a slim, tripartite volume that encompasses a 19th century history of ballooning and the beginnings of portrait photography, a semi-fictional account of the love affair between an English “balloonatic” and the divine Sarah Bernhardt, and a searingly honest examination of the author’s own grief upon the loss of his wife, Pat Kavanagh, in 2008.
As always, Barnes writing is careful, thoughtful, and precise. His insight into the heights of ballooning and its accompanying crashes, the flights of romance and the desperation of rejection, and the comfort of love and the devastation of its loss are intelligent, beautiful, and memorable. It is the type of book that one reads with a pencil nearby so to copy the phrases that so often hit their marks squarely.
In the first section, “The Sin of Height,” Barnes describes the flights of three different balloonists over the course of nineteen years–all of the passengers whose paths cross at times throughout the years. The first is Nadar the French photographer, whose balloon basket carried a developing lab and who was one of the first to ever give us aerial photographs, albeit very vague and poor ones. (moving from Nadar’s early aerial photographs to the Earthrise photos that were taken on the first trip to the moon a century later, Barnes writes beautifully about our tiny planet, swirling with gasses and storms and blue beauty.)
Nadar did however go on to be a great portrait photographer, and his photographs of the actress Sarah Bernhardt are the first we have of her. She too is one of the balloonists that Barnes features. The third balloonist, Fred Burnaby is a English military man–a member of the Royal Horse Guard–an adventurer, and a noted bohemian. It is a history that captures the excitement and controversy of the modern age–encapsulated by the birth of photography, electricity, and aviation. Victor Hugo believed that flight would bring about democracy while Balzac believed that photography steals a layer of the sitter’s persona.
It is Burnaby’s romance with Sarah Bernhardt that makes up the second section, “On the Level.” Reading like part of a novel, this section depicts Burnaby–very much a man of the world–now very much in love and very articulate about how he feels. He is aware of the dizzying heights to which Bernhardt has taken him, and, as a ballonist, he is always aware of the heights from which he will fall when she releases him. His dispassionate accounting of his heartbreak, his pain, his desolation is telling, but despite the level-headedness of his account we never doubt the intensity of the love that he experienced.
But it is the third and longest section–“The Loss of Depth”–that is the most moving, that often feels like a punch in the heart. For in it, Barnes examines his own grief upon losing his wife. “Thirty-seven days from diagnosis to death” is the quickness with which this blow was dealt, and Barnes delineates his pain, his grief, his loneliness with extraordinary honesty and bravery and clarity. It is a exceptional feat, this incise, self-examination of utter loss, put down in words.
While the section surprises us, coming as it does after the previous two sections, in a way he was preparing us for it as well. Burnaby’s meditation on the loss of love, the discussion of crashing being part of the risk of rising, the uxorious care that Nadar took of his stroke-stricken wife, all these point to the marriage of Barnes and Pat Kavanagh.
He discusses the reactions of those he knows, the kind but often inept remarks that friends attempt, the plans they suggest to help him “through it.” He discusses his daily patterns, emptied now of half the players. He considers suicide, but checks that because if his wife lives in his memory, killing himself would be killing her a second time. He examines the Orpheus legend and takes refuge in meaningless soccer games and overly-emotional opera. And through this all he continues to miss his wife terribly and daily, and the pain of her absence seems never to go away.
But at no times is this meditation maudlin. Indeed, I found myself thinking what a wonderful thing this would have been if he could have shown it to his wife when she was alive. But then, he wouldn’t have had the wrenching grief that allowed him to write it.
Levels of Life is more than a beautiful book. It is powerful and loving. Intelligent and thoughtful. Honest and real. Perhaps after reading it, we should then ask our partners to read it as well, to let them know now what they mean to each of us and how their absence would affect us.