Levels of Life
“There is someone missing,” a friend once told Julian Barnes. The understated poignancy of this remark hints at what it is like to read Levels of Life. Someone is, and remains, absent from the text. Although her photograph sits alongside Barnes’s in the atypical diptych of the dustjacket, his late wife, Pat Kavanagh, is never actually named. She is only a “her”. But we come to learn forcefully, nonetheless, that although this person is dead, she continues to exist. Levels of Life has three parts: a historical essay, a short story, and a memoir of Barnes’s grieving. The publisher simply labels it “Biography/Memoir” which provokes us to wonder whether these three parts can possibly cohere, or what the first two could add to the third. But every love has its history, its fictions, its reminiscences, and every grief contains three levels of loss. This is the idea that informs Barnes’s experiment with form, his attempt to use every technique, every angle, to reach the bottom of his grief.
The absence at the heart of the work has aroused divergent critical responses, yet the subtlety of these disagreements attests to the book’s underlying stature. Some, like Peter Conrad , persist in thinking that the book is a memorialisation, albeit one atypically dressed and precisely laundered. Others disagree. Blake Morrison , for instance, emphasised the pervasive reticence and guarded privacy of Barnes’s literary effort. In my view, this is where the stress should fall. Of all responses, however, Michael Wood  has been the most honest. We should heed Wood’s thought that “Barnes has risked writing a terrible book in order to write this very good one. The bad book hovers just off the pages, a sort of uncredited collaborator; a reminder that if we don’t want to be original about the banal, we don’t want to be banal about it either. We want to get as close to banality’s truth as words will allow.” In the end, Barnes presses us against this truth more firmly than any balloonist squashed between his unyielding basket and timorous companions.
The text opens in France, the location and the subject of so much of Barnes’s fiction, including his other great work of experimental pseudo-fiction, Flaubert’s Parrot (1984). We learn here about the trio of aeronauts, Colonel Fred Burnaby, Sarah Bernhardt, and Félix Tournachon who, in pioneering the risky endeavour of balloon flight to drink champagne above the clouds, uncork the metaphor that drives us through the text. Our lives, like our loves, he implies, are caught by the “unexpected breeze” that may see us furrow triumphantly in the fields between Dieppe and Neufch√¢tel, or tumble into the German sea with only a cork jacket to delay our demise.
People have always wanted to get high, and a familiar tension underpins this urge. For Dr Jacques Charles, nervously slung beneath the first ascending hydrogen balloon in 1783, getting high precipitated a “moral feeling” in which we “hear [ourselves] living.” For others, however, the “sin of height” is inescapable. Even the most ardent dreamer will struggle to overlook the retinue of smashed limbs, “ruptured organs,” and curtailed lives which shadowed the early exploration of the skies, litter the first part, and presage our inevitable descent into Barnes’s own grief. The insoluble and uxorious Félix Tournachon described the power of height as “reduc[ing] all things to their relative proportions, and to the Truth.” As Barnes notes, this moral displacement, the gift of a few hundred metres, foreshadowed the experience of viewing the earth from space. The “overview effect” as it has come to be known, describes astronauts’ changing moral perspective when directly faced with our planet’s exposed and contingent position in the universe. Barnes suggests that “to look at ourselves from afar, to make the subjective suddenly objective: this gives us a psychic shock.” The utopianism of early flight outweighed the ways in which sudden shifts of perspective can be disabling.
Fresh aerial perspectives on life also complemented and catalysed the development of photography, another theme in the first part of this book. By stepwise alterations to his name, Barnes reveals Félix Tournachon to be one of the most enigmatic and famous personalities of his era. Tournachon becomes Tournadar, who becomes Nadar: the photographer and socialite whose first name could suffice in lieu of a postal address. We learn that his attempts to use height to revolutionise photography, land surveyance, and cartography all faltered. But the inebriating vertigo of elevation was likely to be deadened under the hood of a camera where the effects of sodium nitrate offered a substitute high. Early images were easier to fix when close to their subject matter, as Nadar’s portraiture demonstrated. The opposite may seem true of literature, which occasionally falters when reflecting raw and proximate experience. It is a testament to his craft that Barnes never compromises depth of field.
The rich historical essay, evoking the turbulent and transformative origins of modern life, segues slowly into the second part of the book, in which Barnes imagines the troubled courtship of Colonel Burnaby and Sarah Bernhardt. Burnaby, awed yet awkward, fumbles before Bernhardt, the actress and social force. It is tempting to substitute the author and his absent wife for these two figures, although things are rarely that simple. Later in the book Barnes explores how people “grieve in character”, but the story of the second part offers further meaning to that phrase in the construction of two characters and the vernacular of the love that crashes shortly after take off.
The humour of this section—like the book as a whole—is as precise and sharp as the author’s envisaged means of suicide, “a hot bath, a glass of wine next to the taps, and an exceptionally sharp Japanese carving knife.” It is hard to suppress the absurdity of the menagerie which surrounds Burnaby and Sarah: Bernhardt “bought an alligator which reacted to its French diet of milk and champagne by dying” and “she also had a boa constrictor which ate sofa cushions and had to be shot – by Sarah herself.” Burnaby, we are told, “was not abashed by such a creature”, and nor, it seems, is Barnes, whose delight in Bernhardt seems to bear the impression of his own remembrances. Kavanagh and Bernhardt, Burnaby and Barnes, form their own inter-temporal ménage à quatre, taking each other’s places in the baskets of French balloons.
Fiction becomes memoir in the third section, “Loss of Depth”. Although anticipated, this excursus on grief does not unfold as we might expect. It is not titled “Loss of Height”. Instead, Barnes draws us, paradoxically, into the “solipsism” of grief. Here, under the auspices of a love’s negative image, we are offered a meditation on the viscera of loss that moves in virtue of its precision, honesty, and rejection of mawkishness. Here the text becomes a memoir of mood, emotion, and doubt. Barnes throws us against the fine grain of his grief, against its doubts, ambivalences, self-admonishment, humour, silliness, and poignancy. We can readily identify with his struggle to comprehend the clichés and reactions of the “Silent Ones” and “advice givers.” But this empathy comes from both sides of the barriers erected in loss. Various well-meaning people try to salve his pain with despatches from the depths of their personal tragedy. Barnes concludes only that “one grief throws no light on another.” Although this may seem true, it is a sentiment that is subtly undermined by the precise and insightful articulation manifest in the book itself.
Barnes is clear that when you lose someone, “the chief witness to what has been your life is now silenced, and retrospective doubt is inevitable. So you need [your friends] to tell you, however glancingly, however unintendingly, that what you once were – the two of you – was seen.” Readers want to be friendly to authors, but most cannot provide the one function desperately needed of a friend in times of grief: that of corroboration. In this case, we were not there. At best the book offers an oblique way of being seen, a testament to the spirit of his relationship, and gratitude to those who did corroborate; those like the unnamed friend who acknowledged, unceremoniously, that someone was missing. Such collaboration is rare, though, and deflecting the awkward clichés of commiseration can become a celebration of love’s idiomatic register: a “shared vocabulary, of tropes, teases, short cuts, injokes, sillinesses, faux rebukes, amatory footnotes – all those obscure references rich in memory but valueless if explained to an outsider.”
This said, however, Levels of Life does not describe the idiomatic character of Barnes’s personal relationship. Nor could it whilst his wife remains absent from the book. Instead, Barnes’s words “pattern” into sentences that expose the generalities of grief. As readers we are only left with an outline, but it feels more intimate than an attempt to journey into more richly revealing territory. Our own explorations in love will have a different character. But in reading Levels of Life we encounter a unique voice and witness powerful thought under duress. Both are unwaveringly “on the level”. Barnes argues—and it requires no contortion to think that this assemblage of historical essay, fiction, and memoir yields argument—that grief is the obverse of love. Thus in accompanying Barnes through his grief we grasp, through the negative impression of his love, the stark outline of the woman he lost.
Barnes’s thesis about the moral character of an elevated perspective contrasts with his deep ambivalence about the moral character of grief, and this creates a latent tension in the third part of the book. On the one hand, grief forces us down, presses us into the gutter. “There are no views” internal to the selfishness which allows the Japanese knife to remain in the kitchen drawer. Yet on the other hand, Barnes shows us how grief draws us close to an internalised presence in a way that is affirming. Grief gestures to a “moral space” because it presupposes antecedent love. This qualified escape from ambivalence is one of the many moments in which Barnes forcefully resists sentimentality. He resists “hacking at” himself with the folded steel of self-directed pity. The text is achingly balanced, and resolutely surprising as a consequence. Barnes finally insists, with shocking graciousness, that loneliness in grief is to be preferred to the loneliness of youth. Not all readers of his book will be able to agree.
For another take on Levels of Life, see Scarlett Baron ‘s piece in Issue 22.1.
Luke Brunning is reading for a DPhil in Philosophy at St John’s College, Oxford.