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On Sale: September 24, 2013
Pages: 144 | ISBN: 978-0-385-35078-5
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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An NPR Best Book of the Year

In this elegant triptych of history, fiction, and memoir, Julian Barnes has written about ballooning and photography, love and grief; about putting two things, and two people, together, and tearing them apart; and enduring after the incomprehensible loss of a loved one. Powerfully rendered, exquisitely crafted in Barnes’s erudite style, this searing work confirms the author as an unparalleled magus of the heart.


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.
Julian Barnes

About Julian Barnes

Julian Barnes - Levels of Life

Photo © Jillian Edelstein

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.


“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)

Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

The introduction, discussion questions, and suggested further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Levels of Life, the moving, genre-bending new work by Man Booker Prize winner Julian Barnes, author of The Sense of an Ending, Flaubert’s Parrot, and many other works.

About the Guide

Part cultural history, part short story, part memoir, Levels of Life defies classification. Instead, it demonstrates what its opening sentence asserts: that things brought together in unprecedented combinations have the power to change the world. In three distinct but subtly connected sections, Julian Barnes joins balloon flight and photography, an imagined love affair between two balloonists, and his agonizing grief over his wife’s death. Love and grief have certainly been brought together before; as Barnes notes, one nearly always follows the other. But rarely has a writer investigated his own grief with such unflinching honesty, fierce intelligence, and grace.

The first section, “The Sin of Height,” explores the history of balloon flight, humankind’s first successful method of transcending earthly constraints. Barnes focuses on three figures: an Englishman, Colonel Fred Burnaby of the Royal Horse Guards; the most famous actress of her time, Sarah Bernhardt; and France’s greatest portrait photographer, Félix Tournachon, known as Nadar. Barnes captures the ecstatic nature of the first balloon flights, the feeling of being free, as Burnaby would write, “from letters, with no post office near, no worries, and above all no telegraphs” [pp. 13–14]. Bernhardt feels that in flight she enters “not silence but the shadow of silence” [p.14]. But it was Nadar who combined balloon flight with photography and produced the first images of the Earth, of Paris, from a Godlike perspective—and thereby changed the world, or our perception of it.

The book’s second section, “On the Level,” is a fictionalized account of an affair between Burnaby and Bernhardt. It begins, ominously, with the ascent in an experimental balloon that ends in disaster, killing both pilot and co-pilot. And this love affair, despite the initial “roaring sense of uplift,” will likewise end in failure, and in heartbreak for Burnaby, as the Divine Sarah values her sexual freedom above all else. This confirms Barnes’s assertion that “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” [p. 39].

The final section, “The Loss of Depth,” shifts to Barnes’s grief story over the death of his wife, a loss that proves “greater than the sum of what was there,” which he acknowledges is both mathematically impossible and emotionally undeniable [p. 73]. In what seems another mathematical cruelty, Barnes writes that his marriage spanned thirty years, but it was just thirty-seven days from his wife’s diagnosis to her death.

Barnes subjects his mourning to an almost microscopic investigation, unfolding the potent mix of feelings—indifference, longing, agonizing sadness, the temptation of suicide, his unapologetic need to keep speaking to his wife, anger at his friends’ sometimes clumsy consolations. An atheist, Barnes must navigate his grief—“its tone and texture, its deceptions and false dawns, its recidivism” [p. 75]—without the benefit of religious solace or significance. Death, for Barnes, is “just the universe doing its stuff” [p. 81].

But Levels of Life extends beyond Barnes’s private grief to a larger cultural critique. We are bad at dealing with death, he asserts. Having lost the old metaphors—there is no underworld to descend into, as in the Orpheus and Eurydice story—we must find new ones. Levels of Life shows just how painful grief can be in the absence of such sustaining myths and metaphors, and while Barnes might not offer new passages to these mythic depths, he shows how—in a book of extraordinary self-revelation—we can still go down into dreams and memory.

About the Author

Julian Barnes is the author of eleven novels, three books of short stories, and three collections of journalism. In addition to the Man Booker Prize, his honors include the Somerset Maugham Award, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, and the E. M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in London.

Discussion Guides

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?

Suggested Readings

Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking; C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed; Joyce Carol Oates, A Widow’s Story; Meghan O’Rourke, The Long Goodbye; David Plante, The Pure Lover; Anne Roiphe, Epilogue; Calvin Trillin, About Alice. 

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