Levels of Life [NOOK Book]

Overview

'Extraordinary... [It] would seem to pull off the impossible: to recreate, on the page, what it is like to be alive in the world'


Guardian



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 ...

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Levels of Life

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Overview

'Extraordinary... [It] would seem to pull off the impossible: to recreate, on the page, what it is like to be alive in the world'


Guardian



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.



'Levels of Life is both a supremely crafted artefact and a desolating guidebook to the land of loss'


John Carey, Sunday Times



'To read it is a privilege. To have written it is astonishing'


The Times

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Julian Barnes lost his wife, literary agent Pat Kavanagh, in 2008, but it took him nearly five years to piece together this book about her. It was not that her death struck him silent; indeed, in his journals, he wrote hundreds of thousands of words about her; but Levels of Life is something different, an evocative tribute that somehow retains her privacy. (Indeed, her name is mentioned nowhere in this memoir.) As always, the Man Booker Award winner moves in unanticipated ways, circling in this instance around, of all things, ballooning and photography, to disclose his story of grieve and gifts received. Editor's recommendation.

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
“Shattering. . . . Simultaneously wise, funny and devastating. . . . A fascinating discourse on love and sorrow.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Elegant. . . . Deeply stirring. . . . Barnes’s account of his grief [has] a fierce and fiery kind of momentum. Within a few pages it is aloft.” —The Boston Globe

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.” —The Guardian (London)
 
“Wonderful. . . . Not a grief memoir so much as a grief meditation. . . . Short, crisp, measured, and deeply felt.” —The New York Review of Books

“A rumination on grief and the alchemical power of love.” —O, the Oprah Magazine

“This is the most inventive and honest portrayal of grief we’ve read. . . . Barnes approaches memoir, a genre that too often errs on the side of sentimental, with complete grace.” —The Huffington Post

“Powerful. . . . ‘Sorrow is a kind of rust of the soul,’ Barnes quotes Samuel Johnson. Levels of Life boldly and beautifully buffs the corrosion.” —NPR

“Artistically exquisite. . . . A penetrating, absorbing and deeply moving study of love, heartbreak and the process of mourning.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune

“A powerful dirge and slender but shapely work of art.” —The Daily Beast

“Evocative and moving. . . . Levels of Life is a magically sad work, a record of loss that is also a record of life, whose shared stories heighten one another.” —The Brooklyn Rail

“Stunning. . . . Deceptively compact but takes us deep. . . . Still grieving, still longing himself, Barnes, like Nadar from above in his hot air balloon, has given us a perspective never seen before.” —The Miami Herald

“A tour-de-force masterwork.” —Richmond Times-Dispatch

“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.” —The Times (London)

“Eloquent. . . . A precisely composed, often deeply moving hybrid of non-fiction, ‘fabulation,’ and straightforward reminiscence and contemplation, is a gifted writer’s response to the incomprehensible.” —The Times Literary Supplement (London)

“Profound. . . . Harrowing. . . . Anyone who has loved and lost can’t fail to be moved by this devastating book.” —The Independent (London)

“Arresting. . . . Barnes writes with astonishing precision about mourning and grief, those areas of human experience so often camouflaged with evasion and silence.” —The Daily Telegraph (London)

“High art, essential reading. It is as powerful and well-articulated as Joan Didion’s harrowing and classic discussion of losing her husband, The Year of Magical Thinking. Barnes manages to be moving precisely because he leaves so much unsaid. His silences are eloquent.” —Daily Mail

“Moving, heartfelt, exact and telling. . . . A remarkable narrative that is as raw in its emotion as it is characteristically elegant in its execution.” —The Irish Times

“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.” —The Herald (Scotland)

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.
The Barnes & Noble Review

Julian Barnes's Levels of Life is a strange book about loving someone and losing them. Barnes's wife, Pat, to whom the book is dedicated, died in 2008. A photo of her, embracing Barnes, appears as the author photo on the back flap. But the first two sections of this short book have little to do with Barnes — they are a whimsical history of ballooning, and a related story about the romance between Sarah Bernhardt and Fred Burnaby, a soldier who crossed the English Channel in a hot-air balloon in 1882. Barnes begins the book with the following line and repeats it at the beginning of each section: "You put two things together that have not been put together before. And the world is changed." Ballooning seems to be a metaphor for the spontaneous nature of love and the horrible risk that you open yourself up to in falling in love — the crash of losing that person. "Every love story is a potential grief story," he writes.

Unlike other memoirists who have attempted to make some kind of sense of grief, Barnes — who previously addressed the problem of mortality in Nothing to Be Frightened Of — is confident that death is an absolute ending. "I do not believe I shall ever see her again. Never see, hear, touch, embrace, listen to, laugh with." There is a kind of beauty about his devastating honesty; he even tells us he has considered suicide. Again, with the ballooning analogy — not being able to experience life alongside his wife results in a loss of depth. "Everything you do, or might achieve thereafter, is thinner, weaker, matters less. There is no echo coming back; no texture, no resonance, no depth of field." Though there can be no greater meaning for his loss (as he puts it, "What is 'success' in mourning?"), Barnes succeeds in transmitting to those lucky readers who have never lost someone, this experience of grief as one among many "levels of life," utterly subject to change, without reason, at any moment.

Jessica Ferri is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared at The New Yorker's Book Bench, NPR,The Economist, The Daily Beast, Time Out New York, Bookforum, and more. Find her at www.jessicaferri.com.

Reviewer: Jessica Ferri

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385350785
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/24/2013
  • Series: Vintage International
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 144
  • Sales rank: 109,671
  • File size: 3 MB

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. 

Biography

Julian Barnes once told London's Observer that he writes fiction "to tell beautiful, exact, and well-constructed lies which enclose hard and shimmering truths." Indeed, this is what Barnes does, sometimes spiking his lies with fact -- most notably in Flaubert's Parrot, the novel that became his breakthrough book. The story of a retired doctor obsessed with the French author, it combines a literary detective story with a character study of its detective, including facts about Flaubert along the way.

Before Flaubert's Parrot propelled him into the company of Ian McEwan and Martin Amis in British authordom, Barnes had been moderately successful with the novels Metroland (which later became the 1997 movie starring Emily Watson and Christian Bale) and Before She Met Me. He was also known to Brits as a newspaper TV critic. Parrot and Barnes's subsequent "Letters from London" in The New Yorker helped expand the author's Stateside following.

"A lot of novelists set up a kind of franchise, and turn out a familiar product," friend and fellow author Jay McInerney told the Guardian in 2000. "But what I like about Jules's work is that he's like an entrepreneur who starts up a new company every time out." Among other ambitious themes, Barnes has explored the collapse of communism (The Porcupine) the Disneyfication of culture (England, England), the simple dynamics of relationships (Talking It Over and its sequel, Love, Etc.), and the connections between art, religion, and death (The History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters).

Barnes has also produced collections of essays, a translation of Alphonse Daudet's In the Land of Pain, and a family memoir (Nothing to Be Frightened Of) that also serves as a meditation on mortality.

Good To Know

In 2000, a cybersquatting professor acquired the Internet rights to julianbarnes.com and several other authors' domain names; Barnes later won his name back, and the domain is now an informational site run by a fan with Barnes's permission. Barnes had protested the professor's actions, accusing him of usurpation; but his opponent might have responded by quoting from Barnes's own (albeit satirical) England, England: "Indeed, wasn't there something old-fashioned about the whole concept of ownership, or rather its acquisition by formal contract, in which title is received in exchange for consideration given?.... It would have been unfair to call Sir Jack Pitman a barbarian, though some did; but there stirred within him a longing to revisit pre-classical, pre-bureaucratic methods of acquiring ownership. Methods such as theft, conquest and pillage, for example."

Barnes wrote four mystery novels under the pseudonym Dan Kavanagh, all of which are now out of print; the novels starred Duffy, a bisexual ex–police officer. Kavanagh's bio read in part: "Having devoted his adolescence to truancy, venery and petty theft, he left home at seventeen and signed on as a deckhand on a Liberian tanker." Kavanagh also happens to be the last name of Barnes's agent and wife, Pat.

Barnes was a deputy literary editor under Martin Amis at the New Statesman from 1980–82 and was also a lexicographer for the Oxford English Dictionary. Amis and Barnes later had a falling-out that became fodder for the press when Amis wrote about it in his memoir, Experience; Barnes is mum on the subject, but the disagreement arose when Amis defected from Barnes's wife to another agent.

Barnes has a cameo in the film Bridget Jones's Diary as himself, but in a lesser role than he has in Helen Fielding's book. In the book, Bridget is flummoxed upon encountering Barnes and embarrasses herself; but the more recognizable Salman Rushdie was substituted for Barnes in the film version.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Dan Kavanagh
    2. Hometown:
      London, England
    1. Date of Birth:
      January 19, 1946
    2. Place of Birth:
      Leicester, England
    1. Education:
      Degree in modern languages from Magdalen College, Oxford, 1968

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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Reading Group Guide

1. Julian Barnes begins the book with a striking assertion: “You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed” [p. 3]. How are the seemingly disparate concerns of Levels of Life—love and grief, ballooning and photography, height and depth—brought together? In what ways are these themes connected? In what ways is the book itself an unprecedented act of joining, even as it is about loss and separation?

2. What is the effect of placing his essay on grief after the section on the history of balloon flight and aerial photography, and the fictionalized account of the love affair between Fred Burnaby and Sarah Bernhardt? Would the final section have been less affecting if Barnes had published it as a stand-alone piece?

3. Why does Barnes come to love opera—an art form he had formerly despised as overly dramatic—after his wife dies? What is it about opera that elicits such a powerful emotional response form him? Why does he call it his “new social realism” [p. 100]?

4. Discuss the implications of Barnes’s remarkable assertion that we seek out love, in spite its potential for grief, because “love is the meeting point between truth and magic. Truth, as in photography; magic, as in ballooning” [p. 39]. Why should the joining of truth and magic be so potent? 

5. What did balloon flight represent to its first proponents, the “balloonatics”? What kind of freedom did it offer them? Why did some people feel that it in fact constituted a kind of hubris?

6. Why does Barnes assert that “we are bad at dealing with death, that banal, unique thing; we can no longer make it part of a wider pattern” [p. 75]? Why is this the case? What shared patterns, beliefs, and myths have we lost that might allow us to experience death in more meaningful ways?

7. What is Barnes suggesting when he writes that “the fact that someone is dead may mean that they are not alive, but doesn't mean that they do not exist”? [p. 111]. 

8. Why does Barnes object so strongly to euphemisms like “passed” and “lost to cancer”? How does he react to the well-meaning and largely conventional consolation offered by friends—that he should get away for a while, or meet someone new, or that surviving grief will make him stronger?

9. Bewildered by his grief, Barnes asks: “What is ‘success’ in mourning? Does it lie in remembering or in forgetting? A staying still or a moving on? Or some combination of both? The ability to hold the lost love powerfully in mind, remembering without distorting? The ability to continue living as she would have wanted you to . . .? And afterwards? What happens to the heart—what does it need, and seek?” [p. 122]. How might these questions be answered?

10.  Compared to most memoirists, Barnes is remarkably restrained about his wife, never mentioning her name or the cause of her death. Why might have he have made this choice? What is the effect of focusing so intensely on the experience and meaning of his grief rather than its source?

11. How does Barnes argue himself out of suicide? How does he justify continuing to talk to his wife after she dies? In what ways is his thinking on these questions both exceptional and perfectly logical?

12. Barnes gives readers an extraordinarily nuanced and searching meditation on grief. What are some of the most remarkable insights he offers in Levels of Life?

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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 21, 2013

    Beautifully written book on the subject of loss and grief

    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.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted May 13, 2014

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    Posted October 14, 2013

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