Levels of Life
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Levels of Life

4.6 3
by Julian Barnes
     
 

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You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed…

In Levels of Life Julian Barnes gives us Nadar, the pioneer balloonist and aerial photographer; he gives us Colonel Fred Burnaby, reluctant adorer of the extravagant Sarah Bernhardt; then, finally, he gives us the story of his own grief,

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Overview

You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed…

In Levels of Life Julian Barnes gives us Nadar, the pioneer balloonist and aerial photographer; he gives us Colonel Fred Burnaby, reluctant adorer of the extravagant Sarah Bernhardt; then, finally, he gives us the story of his own grief, unflinchingly observed.

This is a book of intense honesty and insight; it is at once a celebration of love and a profound examination of sorrow.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Not a conventional memoir—What did you expect from the multi-award-winning author of The Sense of an Ending?—this book aims to "put together two things that have not been put together before, and the world is changed." Barnes talks about ballooning and Sarah Bernhardt, then reflects on his own life to convey an experience of heartrending loss.
The New York Times Book Review - Sarah Manguso
Levels of Life, a putative grief memoir about the loss of [Barnes's] wife…is part history, part meditative essay and part fictionalized biography. The pieces combine to form a fascinating discourse on love and sorrow…The third essay, bracingly precise, is the emotional center of the book. Barnes here is simultaneously wise, funny and devastating…[it] is one of the least indulgent accounts of mourning I have ever read.
Publishers Weekly
British novelist Barnes (The Sense of an Ending) offers a delicately oblique, emotionally tricky geography of grief, which he has constructed from his experience since the sudden death in 2008 of his beloved wife of 30 years, literary agent Pat Kavanagh. The “levels” of the title—a high, even, and deep “moral space”—play out in the juxtaposition of two subjects that are seemingly incongruous but potentially marvelous and sublime together, as Barnes delineates through his requisite and always fascinating historical examples: the 19th-century French photographer Nadar’s attempts to unite the evolving science of aeronautics (“the sin of height”) with the art of photography for the first astounding aerial views of Earth; and English traveler and avid balloonist Colonel Fred Burnaby’s passion for the bold, adventurist French actress Sarah Bernhardt. The shocking death of Barnes’s wife left him feeling flattened and suicidal. In his grieving turmoil, he questions assumptions about death and mourning, loss and memory, and he grapples eloquently with the ultimate moral conundrum: how to live? (Sept.)
From the Publisher
“An unforgettable book…Visceral, exquisitely crafted, thoughtful and heartbreaking.” —Ellan Allfrey, NPR Best Books of the Year

“Deeply stirring....The metaphoric intensity of what has come before gives Barnes's account of his grief a fierce and fiery kind of momentum.” —John Freeman, The Boston Globe

“Stunning. . . . Levels of Life is deceptively compact but takes us deep. It is as intimate a book as Barnes has ever written, but its beauty—and art—comes from elegant restraint [and] a perspective never seen before.” —Ellen Kanner, The Miami Herald

“A moving tribute to a love and lifelong partner, an examination of grief that personalizes universal emotion effortlessly and beautifully.” —Alexandra Primiani, New York Daily News

“Barnes has distilled his grief—refined and compacted it—and the result is a powerful dirge and slender but shapely work of art.” —Adam Begley, The Daily Beast
 
“A powerful meditation on things that lift us up—literally, as in hot air balloons, and emotionally, as in love—and things that bring us crashing to earth.” —Heller McAlpin, NPR
“Searching, angry, plangent and beautiful. . . . Only a writer of Barnes's stature could sublimate personal pain into something artistically exquisite.” —Malcolm Forbes, Minneapolis Star Tribune
 
“A tour-de-force masterwork. . . a stunningly intricate book that combines history, fiction and memoir in a hybrid form you're unlikely to forget.” —Doug Childers, Richmond Times-Dispatch

“As eloquent as it is soul-shuddering. . . A book about the death of a spouse that is unlike any other—book or spouse—and thus illuminates the singularity as well as the commonality of grieving.” —Kirkus (starred review) 
 
“A precisely composed, often deeply moving hybrid of non-fiction, 'fabulation,' and straightforward reminiscence and contemplation.” —Joyce Carol Oates, The Times Literary Supplement
 
“A remarkable narrative that is as raw in its emotion as it is characteristically elegant in its execution.” – Eileen Battersby, The Irish Times

“A book whose slimness belies its throbbing emotional power.” – Leyla Sanai, The Independent

“A luminous meditation on love and grief.” —Jane Shlling, The Telegraph
 
“At times unbearably sad, but it is also exquisite: a paean of love, and on love, and a book unexpectedly full of life. . . . In time [this] may come to be viewed as the hardest test and finest vindication of [Barnes's] literary powers.” —Rosemary Goring, The Herald (Scotland)

“Both a supremely crafted artefact and a desolating guidebook to the land of loss.” —John Carey, The Sunday Times

“Spare and beautiful...a book of rare intimacy and honesty about love and grief.  To read it is a privilege.  To have written it is astonishing.” —Ruth Scurr, The Times

“This complex, precise and beautiful book hits you in the solar plexus and leaves you gasping for air. . . . It's an unrestrained, affecting piece of writing, raw and honest and more truthful for its dignity and artistry, every word resonant with its particular pitch. It defies objectivity. Anyone who has loved and suffered loss, or just suffered, should read this book, and re-read it, and re-read it.” —Martin Fletcher, The Independent

“As the slim volume progresses, something not quite central to your vision builds, so that by the end you are blindsided by a quiet devastation. . . . Levels of Life would seem to pull off the impossible: to recreate, on the page, what it is like to be alive in the world.” —Emma Brockes, The Guardian

Kirkus Reviews
A book about the death of a spouse that is unlike any other--book or spouse--and thus illuminates the singularity as well as the commonality of grieving. Having provocatively addressed the matter of mortality (Nothing To Be Frightened Of, 2008), the award-winning British novelist brings a different perspective to the death of his wife. There is actually little about his long marriage to literary agent Pat Kavanagh, who was successful, respected and private. "Grief, like death, is banal and unique," he writes, with the sort of matter-of-fact precision that gives this book its power. In the two early sections, on ballooning, photography and love, Barnes employs an almost mannered, incantatory tone that seems more like a repression of emotion than an expression of it, making readers wonder how these meditations on perspective might ultimately cohere. "You put together two people who have not been put together before; and sometimes the world is changed, sometimes not," he writes about a doomed love affair between a famous actress and balloon adventurer. "They may crash and burn, or burn and crash. But sometimes, something new is made, and then the world is changed. Together, in that first exaltation, that first roaring sense of uplift, they are greater than their two separate selves." Just as it took five years for Barnes to address his wife's death in print, it takes two sections of establishing tone and perspective before he writes of his mourning directly, though of course, he has been writing about it from the start of the book. "I mourn her uncomplicatedly, and absolutely," he writes. Ultimately, he finds some resonance in opera, which had never interested him before, as he discovers that "song was a more primal means of communication than the spoken word--both higher and deeper." The perspectives of height and depth tie the first two sections to the third, where love and death can't ever be resolved but rather, somehow survived. Barnes' reticence is as eloquent as it is soul-shuddering.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780385350785
Publisher:
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
09/24/2013
Series:
Vintage International
Sold by:
Random House
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
144
Sales rank:
210,494
File size:
2 MB

Read an Excerpt

ON THE LEVEL
 
You put together two things that have not been put together before; and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Pilâtre de Rozier, the first man to ascend in a fire balloon, also planned to be the first to fly the Channel from France to England. To this end he constructed a new kind of aerostat, with a hydrogen balloon on top, to give greater lift, and a fire balloon beneath, to give better control. He put these two things together, and on the 15th of June 1785, when the winds seemed favourable, he made his ascent from the Pas-de-Calais. The brave new contraption rose swiftly, but before it had even reached the coastline, flame appeared at the top of the hydrogen balloon, and the whole, hopeful aerostat, now looking to one observer like a heavenly gas lamp, fell to earth, killing both pilot and co-pilot.
 
You put together two people who have not been put together before; and sometimes the world is changed, sometimes not. They may crash and burn, or burn and crash. But sometimes, something new is made, and then the world is changed. Together, in that first exaltation, that first roaring sense of uplift, they are greater than their two separate selves. Together, they see further, and they see more clearly.
 
Of course, love may not be evenly matched; perhaps it rarely is. To put it another way: how did those besieged Parisians of 1870-71 get replies to their letters? You can fly a balloon out from the Place St.-Pierre and assume it will land somewhere useful; but you can hardly expect the winds, however patriotic, to blow it back to Montmartre on a return flight. Various stratagems were proposed: for example, placing the return correspondence in large metal globes and floating them downstream into the city, there to be caught in nets. Pigeon post was a more obvious idea, and a Batignolles pigeon fancier put his dovecote at the authorities’ disposal: a basket of birds might be flown out with each siege balloon, and return bearing letters. But compare the freight capacity of a balloon and a pigeon, and imagine the weight of disappointment. According to Nadar, the solution came from an engineer who worked in sugar manufacture. Letters intended for Paris were to be written in a clear hand, on one side of the paper, with the recipient’s address at the top. Then, at the collecting station, hundreds of them would be laid side by side on a large screen and photographed. The image would be micrographically reduced, flown into Paris by carrier pigeon, and enlarged back to readable size. The revived letters were then put into envelopes and delivered to their addressees. It was better than nothing; indeed, it was a technical triumph. But imagine a pair of lovers, one able to write privately and at length on both sides of the page, and hide the tenderest words in an envelope; the other constrained by brevity and the knowledge that private feelings might be publicly inspected by photographers and postmen. Although—isn’t that how love sometimes feels, and works?
 
Sarah Bernhardt was photographed by Nadar—first the father, later the son—throughout her life. Her first session took place when she was about twenty, at the time Félix Tournachon was also involved in another tumultuous, if briefer, career: that of The Giant. Sarah is not yet Divine—she is unknown, aspiring; yet the portraits already show her a star.
 
She is simply posed, wrapped in a velvet cloak, or an enveloping shawl. Her shoulders are bare; she wears no jewellery except a small pair of cameo earrings; her hair is virtually undressed. So is she: there is more than a hint that she wears little beneath that cloak, that shawl. Her expression is withholding, and thus alluring. She is, of course, very beautiful, perhaps more so to the modern eye than at the time. She seems to embody truthfulness, theatricality and mystery—and make those abstractions compatible. Nadar also took a nude photograph which some claim is of her. It shows a woman, naked to the waist, peek-a-booing with one eye from behind a spread fan. Whatever the case, the portraits of Sarah cloaked and shawled are decidedly more erotic.
        
Scarcely five feet tall, she was not considered the right size for an actress; also, too pale and too thin. She seemed impulsive and natural in both life and art; she broke theatrical rules, often turning upstage to deliver a speech. She slept with all her leading men. She loved fame and self-publicity—or, as Henry James silkily put it, she was “a figure so admirably suited for conspicuity.” One critic compared her successively to a Russian princess, a Byzantine empress and a Muscat begum, before concluding: “Above all, she is as Slav as one can be. She is much more Slav than all the Slavs I have ever met.” In her early twenties she had an illegitimate son, whom she took everywhere with her, heedless of disapproval. She was Jewish in a largely anti-Semitic France, while in Catholic Montreal they stoned her carriage. She was brave and doughty.

Naturally, she had enemies. Her success, her sex, her racial origin and her bohemian extravagance reminded the puritanical why actors used to be buried in unhallowed ground. And over the decades her acting style, once so original, inevitably dated, since naturalness onstage is just as much an artifice as naturalism in the novel. If the magic always worked for some—Ellen Terry called her “transparent as an azalea” and compared her stage presence to “smoke from a burning paper”—others were less kind. Turgenev, though a Francophile and himself a dramatist, found her “false, cold, affected,” and condemned her “repulsive Parisian chic.”
 
Fred Burnaby was often described as bohemian. His official biographer wrote that he lived “entirely aloof, absolutely regardless of conventionalities.” And he had known the exoticism which Bernhardt merely appropriated. A traveller might bring reports back to Paris from afar; a playwright would pillage them for themes and effects; then a designer and costumier would perfect the illusion around her. Burnaby had been that traveller: he had gone deep into Russia, across Asia Minor and the Middle East, up the Nile. He had crossed Fashoda country, where both sexes went naked and dyed their hair bright yellow. Stories that adhered to him often featured Circassian girls, gypsy dancers and pretty Kirghiz widows.
        
He claimed descent from Edward I, the king known as Longshanks, and displayed virtues of courage and truth-speaking which the English imagine unique to themselves. Yet there was something unsettling about him. His father was said to be “melancholy as the padge-owl that hooted in his park,” and Fred, though vigorous and extrovert, inherited this trait. He was enormously strong, yet frequently ill, tormented by liver and stomach pains; “gastric catarrh” once drove him to a foreign spa. And though “very popular in London and Paris,” and a member of the Prince of Wales’s circle, he was described by the Dictionary of National Biography as living “much alone.”
        
The conventional accept and are frequently charmed by a certain unconventionality; Burnaby seems to have exceeded that limit. One of his devoted friends called him “the most slovenly rascal that ever lived,” who sat “like a sack of corn on a horse.” He was held to be foreign-looking, with “oriental features” and a Mephistophelean smile. The DNB called his looks “Jewish and Italian,” noting that his “unEnglish” appearance “led him to resist attempts to procure portraits of him.”
 
We live on the flat, on the level, and yet—and so— we aspire. Groundlings, we can sometimes reach as far as the gods. Some soar with art, others with religion; most with love. But when we soar, we can also crash. There are few soft landings. We may find ourselves bouncing across the ground with leg-fracturing force, dragged towards some foreign railway line. Every love story is a potential grief story. If not at first, then later. If not for one, then for the other. Sometimes, for both.
 
So why do we constantly aspire to love? Because love is the meeting point of truth and magic. Truth, as in photography; magic, as in ballooning.




From the Hardcover edition.

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Meet the Author

Julian Barnes was born in Leicester and moved to London in 1946. He is the author of twenty books, and in 2011 won the Man Booker Prize for The Sense of an Ending. He met Pat Kavanagh in 1978.
 
Pat Kavanagh was born in South Africa and moved to London in 1964. She worked in advertising and then, for forty years, as a literary agent. She married Julian Barnes in 1979, and died in 2008.

Brief Biography

Hometown:
London, England
Date of Birth:
January 19, 1946
Place of Birth:
Leicester, England
Education:
Degree in modern languages from Magdalen College, Oxford, 1968

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Levels of Life 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Barnes has written a beautiful book philosophically dealing with the pain of loss and grief. His writing is beautiful and his questioning and probing open many ways to think about these feelings and emotions. A must read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago