Levels of Life by Julian Barnes

Over recent years I’ve been rediscovering my love of the writing of Julian Barnes; and so he’s made several appearances on the Ramblings, although pleasingly I still have plenty of his books unread. This is one of them, and I have no idea why I particularly felt the strong need to pick it up when I did. But I had that urge, in the middle of a crisis when I was undecided as to what to read next, and I’m glad I did. It’s an often painful read, and a powerful one; but beautiful and honest too.

“Levels of Life” is a non-fiction work, tagged on the back as “biography/memoir” and that’s a fairly accurate description. The book takes as its structure three levels – its sections are entitled “The Sin of Height”, “On the Level” and “The Loss of Depth” – and uses this construct to explore initially the lives of Nadar, a pioneer ballonist and aerial photographer; Colonel Fred Burnaby, another balloonist given here a fictional passion for Sarah Bernhardt (who was also a devotee of dirigibles); and then finally he exlores his own grief and emotions at the loss of his wife of 30 years, Pat Kavanagh.

Kavanagh died in 2008 from a brain tumour, 37 days after diagnosis of her illness. That bald statement along reveals what a cruel, shocking and unimaginable time it must have been for Barnes to live through. Yet the writer in Barnes needs to explore not only his own emotions and his own loss, but also the human condition and what it means to love. Nadar cared tenderly for his wife for years after heart attacks and strokes; Colonel Fred here never really recovers from the love of Sarah; and Barnes was quite obviously devastated by the loss of the love of his life.

You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed. People may not notice at the time, but that doesn’t matter. The world has been changed nonetheless.

“Levels of Life” is obviously a raw and never easy read; Barnes is always honest and unflinching in his look at himself, his grief, his process of mourning and his reactions to others. It could perhaps be considered unusual to structure a book on your own personal grief this way, but I think Barnes was trying to make his story and his emotions more universal. And it’s as if he can only deal with the topic obliquely, skirting around his subject by exploring other people’s lives before approaching the autobiographical section from an angle. That’s understandable; a loss like this takes time to come through (if you ever really do), and although Kavanagh died in 2008, the book is dated at the end “20 October 2012” (four years to the day from her death).

Apart from “A Life with Books“, a lovely little pamphlet I read just over a year ago, my experience of reading Barnes has all been fiction. Branching out into his non-fiction works has been something I’ve wanted to do for such a long time; and although this was a hard book to read, it was also a beautiful and moving one. Barnes captured quite brilliantly that sense of loss of a close loved one; the fact that it’s not only their physical presence which has gone, but also the shared experiences, the personal in-jokes and the structure of a joint life lived. The initial sections of the book were fascinating and moving in themselves, and a clever way to approach Barnes’ exploration of his own loss.

The more I read of Julian Barnes’ work, the more I realise just what a wonderful writer he really is. To be able to take your grief and loss, and then turn it into a work of great beauty is very special; and apart from anything else, “Levels of Life” is a moving and emotional tribute to his wife and his love for her. Not an easy read, as I said; and selecting the right time to read it in your own life is important. But it’s a powerful and unforgettable work, and I’m glad I chose to read it right now.