LEVELS OF LIFE by Julian Barnes

Book Quote:

“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.”

Book Review:

Review by Roger Brunyate  FEB 10, 2014)

Julian Barnes’ memoir of grief for the death of his wife Pat Kavanagh in 2008 after a thirty-year relationship, must be one of the most moving tributes ever paid to a loved one, but also the most oblique. So let’s start with something simple, a photograph. Look up the title in the Daily Mail of London, partly for the marvelously-titled review “Lifted by Love, Grounded by Grief” by Craig Brown, but mostly for the photograph that accompanies it. Julian is seated. Pat stands behind him, her arms around his shoulders, her chin resting on the crown of his head. Her love is obvious, she whom Barnes refers to as “The heart of my life; the life of my heart.” But equally striking is the unusual vertical composition. Pat, who on the ground was a small woman beside the gangling Barnes, here appears above him, like a guardian angel reaching down.

Which is relevant, because Barnes’ book is about verticality, about love and loss, and incidentally about photography. The first of its three sections, “The Sin of Height,” is essentially an essay. It begins with three ascents by balloon: the English adventurer Colonel Fred Burnaby in 1882, the French actress Sarah Bernhardt in 1876, and a French entrepreneur named Félix Tournachon in 1863. Tournachon was to become one of the most famous early photographers under the name Nadar; it was he who took the iconic photographs of Bernhardt, and it was in his studio in 1874 that the first Impressionist exhibition was held. Barnes’ second section, “On the Level,” is typical of many of his short stories (and also longer works such as Flaubert’s Parrot and Arthur & George), starting off from fact and developing it in the imagination. In this case, his subject is the passionate affair between Fred Burnaby and Sarah Bernhardt in the mid-1870’s, the remarkable openness of the actress with the soldier (on the level, indeed), and its inevitable end. All the way through these sixty-plus pages, you can see the author conjuring examples of daring and discovery, love and loss, and creating a language of metaphor with which to describe it.

My assumption was that in the third and longest part, “The Loss of Depth,” he would apply these things directly to his wife, giving us a portrait of her more intimate and revealing even than those Nadar took of “the divine Sarah.” But no, he does almost exactly the opposite; in photographic language again, what he gives us is the negative, leaving it for us to develop. Almost immediately, he plunges into a description of grief, the constant reminders of things no longer shared, the intolerable intrusion of friends with euphemistic circumlocutions or bracing suggestions, or worse still avoidance of the subject altogether. Pat (whom he never names except in the dedication) is present only in the spaces she has left in his heart; one of the things that turns him away from thoughts of suicide is the knowledge that he retains the mould of her memory; without him, that too would be lost. He comes back, to a degree, through art: through the discovery of opera, through reading, and above all through writing. As you read on, you see him using links to the earlier sections, a phrase here, an idea there, and you think: “Ah, now he is going to pull it all together, and himself too.” But it is never as easy as that. Barnes has great skill, but also the daring to leave doors open and loose ends untied; I am sure that “closure” is one of those words he hates. And that is fine, because this strange asymmetrical hybrid is Barnes’ tribute to a love that will never end, and probably the best book he has ever written.

AMAZON READER RATING: from 82 readers
PUBLISHER: Knopf (September 24, 2013)
REVIEWER: Roger Brunyate
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
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February 10, 2014 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , , , ,  · Posted in: Non-fiction, Reading Guide, y Award Winning Author

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