BY SOPHY KOHLER
Though classified as memoir, Julian Barnes’s slim volume, Levels of Life, is more of an extended essay, a reflection on the highs of love and the lows of grief. The book opens with the line, “You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed.” This becomes a refrain, used to tie the three sections of the narrative together, and secure our experience of it as a book of opposites, of juxtapositions.
In “The Sin of Height”, Barnes introduces us to the history of ballooning through the little-known figures of Fred Burnaby and Sarah Bernhardt, and the more familiar Félix Tournachon. The key figure here is Tournachon, known simply as Nadar (“affectionately rebaptised” with the suffix -dar to become first Tournadar), who is not only a “balloonatic” but also, according to Barnes, “the finest portrait photographer ever seen.” In his attempt to combine aeronautics with photography, “two things that have not been put together before” (though with little success), Nadar is for Barnes a symbol of the kind of aspiration that makes us soar, but inevitably crash: “We live on the flat, on the level, and yet — and so — we aspire,” he writes. “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.”
The book unfolds as an extended metaphor, in which height is used to illustrate experience and emotion (on top of the world; in the depths of despair), and in which its protagonists “soar” and, later, “crash”. In “On the Level”, Barnes turns to focus on a love story — the romance between Burnaby and Bernhardt, and two people are put together who have not been put together before. But, as Barnes forecasts, “Every love story is a potential grief story.” We realise, here, that Barnes is not simply speaking universally, but about the death of Pat Kavanagh, his wife of 30 years.
While it is only the final section of the book that is devoted to Kavanagh, we know that he has been talking about her the whole time; that we have arrived at what the prose has been circumscribing. The writing becomes more concrete, less abstract, as Barnes confronts the death of his wife, with whom he soared. For this it is necessary for him to move beyond metaphor, the descriptions of ballooning have achieved their aim, they have got us to this point. Perhaps significantly, “The Loss of Depth” is written as though a letter to the reader, signed “J.B.; London, 20 October 2012”, hinting at something more real than the stories that come before it.
With Levels of Life, Barnes has not written a Joan Didion or an Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, this is a different approach to mourning. We are made to think of different kinds of hard landings, of Icarus, and of our own misfortunes. Barnes notices how it is the small things, writ large, through which the world changes; how maybe it is in being brought back down to the ground that we are able to see more clearly.
Levels of Life is published by Jonathan Cape, R200, and is one of AERODROME’s WinterReads.
GIVEAWAY: Win one of two copies of Levels of Life by Julian Barnes. To enter, email competition(at)aerodrome.co.za, with the book’s title in the subject line. In the body of the email please include your full name, contact number and physical address (including area code). Only readers resident in South Africa are eligible. Entries close on 15 August 2013.