Balloons for Ballast
Levels of Life
With its softly lilting alliteration and gentle vocalic glides, the title of Julian Barnes’s new book delicately prefigures the aerial mode of travel which it both chronicles and emulates. Levels of Life is in part about ballooning’s beginnings: its thrilling infancy, its utopian pioneers, its incongruous early uses. But it is also about life as ballooning—with all its exhilarating accelerations, its phases of level-headed calm, and its sudden, terrifying crashes. Through metaphor and anecdote, Barnes writes about departures from the “level” of everyday life—the intoxicating heavenward soar of love, the hellish plummeting catastrophe of loss.
The book unfolds in three parts: “The Sin of Height”, “On the Level”, and “The Loss of Depth”. Together they form an airy but finely unified triptych. In Part I, Barnes assembles a kaleidoscope of historical vignettes. His core cast of impassioned nineteenth-century “balloonatics”—Colonel Fred Burnaby of the Royal Horse Guards, the French celebrity actress Sarah Bernhardt, and Félix Tournachon, better known as Nadar, “the finest portrait photographer” of the age—are offered as representative of “the balloon-going classes of the day”. Through their daring, faintly burlesque experiments and adventures, Barnes captures the excitement and hubris of early aeronautical travel and the idealism which infused contemporary responses to it. Balloonists were “the new Argonauts”; ballooning stood for freedom, modernity, democracy—even for universal brotherhood. To stand on a balloon’s cradle and look down was to experience a revolutionary new perspective. Barnes ponders the “cognitive change” triggered by the first sky-based photographs taken of the ground by Nadar in 1858. Greeted with indifference though it was, this aerostatic breakthrough, like the sight of the earth’s globe captured by the astronauts travelling aboard Apollo 8 in 1968, is identified as an epochal moment in human self-awareness: “To look at ourselves from afar, to make the subjective suddenly objective: this gives us a psychic shock.” Even in—or especially in—a godless world, there are insights to be gained from incremental approximations of God’s fabled view. Seeing ourselves from a height starkly reveals our dwarfish insignificance. In that realisation, the sin of height, “otherwise known as the sin of getting above yourself”, is “purged”. And yet not all soaring, as Barnes repeatedly emphasises, is self-aggrandising; most is appallingly dangerous: “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.”
Love, like ballooning, is a balancing act: “every love story is a potential grief story”. In Part II, Barnes considers these risky activities as modes of connection. As an example of the power of balloons to build bridges between people, Barnes zooms in on the aerostatic postal service set up to link Paris to the outside world during the siege of the capital by the Prussians in 1870. Most of Barnes’s books evince an interest in cross-Channel relations, and Levels of Life is no exception. The middle section’s cornerstone—Fred Burnaby’s courtship of Sarah Bernhardt—is framed by two attempts, in 1785 and 1882, to balloon across the Channel. Much of the piquancy of the romance between the English colonel and the French star of the stage—their shared interest in ballooning aside—has to do with language and, specifically, with metaphor. Whereas Sarah Bernhardt’s remarks are deftly coded, Fred Burnaby feels “uneasy with metaphor”, unsure as to what his expertly flirtatious actress really means. “I cannot bandy metaphor any longer”, he helplessly announces, on the cusp of an amorous confession. As a novelist Barnes is attuned—indeed committed— to metaphor but no derision is implied in the flurries of aeronautical imagery deployed to convey Burnaby’s turmoil. On the contrary, only the most sympathetic irony suffuses Barnes’s depiction of the Colonel as a man baffled by his own “sudden gust of declaration”, alternatively “deflated” and enthralled to the “pull and lift in his heart”.
Part III, written in the first person, zeroes in on the nadir of loss. Here Barnes returns to a mode of fragmentary, reflective autobiography first explored in the ½ chapter of A History of the World in 10 and ½ Chapters (1989). There, in a “Parenthesis” nested within the historically flavoured stories featured in the rest of the book, Barnes gives an intimate first-person account of his love for his wife and his vivid fear of death. That voice is intensely personal, but also half-disowned: “when I say “I””, he teases, “you will want to know within a paragraph or two whether I mean Julian Barnes or someone invented”. There is no such playful obliquity in Levels of Life. As in Nothing to be Frightened Of (2008), Barnes’s recent collection of musings about death, the author’s initials are printed below the book’s closing words, asserting his claim to the volume’s first person. Barnes writes of the 32 years he and his wife spent together, and of the “thirty-seven days from diagnosis to death”. He charts his progress through the “new-found land” of pain, a land in which there are no levels, “no hierarchy, except that of feeling, of pain”. “Grief”, he discovers, “is like the negative image of love”. While Nadar in an earlier century had dreamt of mapping the earth’s surface from the height of a balloon, Barnes, now four-and-a-half years into his journey through the land of pain, writes of his experiences as a geographer of the heart, a cartographer of loss.
Is grief ever done? That, for Barnes, is “the final, tormenting, unanswerable question”. Is the process complete when “life feels once more as if it is taking place on the flat, on the level”? Grief “destroys all patterns”, perhaps even “the belief that any pattern exists”. But Barnes thinks we need patterns to survive. And as a writer he has faith in the power of patterned words—that way lies “salvation”, no less. In Levels of Life, the trope of ballooning provides this pattern, binding the three panels of Barnes’s aerialist triptych together. With its history of unbounded, rocambolesque idealism and its vertiginous tragedies, ballooning allows Barnes to bridge the literal and the metaphorical, the ordinary and the magical, the objective and the subjective.
In his familiar, pared-down style, by turns metaphorical and ironic, Barnes creates a rhythmical collage, a moving tessellation of imaginative history and personal memory. It is a short but spacious book: within its pages, images circulate, travelling up and down and along its vertical and horizontal axes, building bridges in the air, telling of life from above and from within. In A History of the World in 10 and ½ Chapters, Barnes remarked that “the heart is not heart-shaped” and that “after death the heart assumes the shape of a pyramid”. Levels of Life is about love, death, and memorialisation, but Barnes’s heart is less pyramid- than balloon-shaped—subject, like all our hearts, to the pull and lift of gusts we can neither foresee nor resist.
For another take on Levels of Life, see Luke Brunning‘s piece in Issue 22.3.
Scarlett Baron is a Lecturer in Twentieth-Century British and American Literature at University College London.