An NPR Best Book of the Year
Julian Barnes, author of the Man Booker Prize–winning novel The Sense of an Ending, gives us his most powerfully moving book yet, beginning in the nineteenth century and leading seamlessly into an entirely personal account of loss—making Levels of Life an immediate classic on the subject of grief.
Levels of Life is a book about ballooning, photography, love and loss; about putting two things, and two people, together, and about tearing them apart. One of the judges who awarded Barnes the 2011 Booker Prize described him as “an unparalleled magus of the heart.” This book confirms that opinion.
“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 of London
“A remarkable narrative that is as raw in its emotion as it is characteristically elegant in its execution.” —Eileen Battersby, The Irish Times
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.
Excerpted from Levels of Life by Julian Barnes. Copyright © 2013 by Julian Barnes. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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?