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Levels of Life [Paperback]

Julian Barnes
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (77 customer reviews)
RRP: 7.99
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Book Description

3 April 2014

You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed.

In Levels of Life Julian Barnes gives us Nadar, the pioneer balloonist and aerial photographer; he gives us Colonel Fred Burnaby, reluctant adorer of the extravagant Sarah Bernhardt; then, finally, he gives us the story of his own grief, unflinchingly observed.

This is a book of intense honesty and insight; it is at once a celebration of love and a profound examination of sorrow.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 128 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (3 April 2014)
  • Language: Unknown
  • ISBN-10: 0099584530
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099584537
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (77 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 4,213 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Julian Barnes is the author of ten novels, including Metroland, Flaubert's Parrot, A History of the World in 10½ Chapters and Arthur & George; two books of short stories, Cross Channel and The Lemon Table; and also three collections of journalism, Letters from London, Something to Declare, and The Pedant in the Kitchen.

His work has been translated into more than thirty languages. In France he is the only writer to have won both the Prix Médicis (for Flaubert's Parrot) and the Prix Femina (for Talking it Over). In 1993 he was awarded the Shakespeare Prize by the FVS Foundation of Hamburg. He lives in London.

Product Description


"It is extraordinary... [It] would seem to pull off the impossible: to recreate, on the page, what it is like to be alive in the world." (Emma Brockes Guardian)

"This is a book of rare intimacy and honesty about love and grief. To read it is a privilege. To have written it is astonishing." (Ruth Scurr The Times)

"It's an unrestrained, affecting piece of writing, raw and honest and more truthful for its dignity and artistry... Anyone who has loved and suffered loss, or just suffered, should read this book, and re-read it, and re-read it." (Martin Fletcher Independent)

"Levels of Life is both a supremely crafted artefact and a desolating guidebook to the land of loss." (John Carey Sunday Times)

"While one might expect a Barnes book to impress, delight, move, disconcert or amuse, the last thing for which his work prepares us is the blast of paralysingly direct emotion that concludes Levels of Life." (Tim Martin Daily Telegraph)

"Levels of Life is, deep-down, a heartfelt attempt to chronicle the strange journey that follows the death of a loved one." (Craig Brown Mail on Sunday)

"A Taj Mahal made of paper not white marble." (Peter Conrad Observer)

"A magnificent blast of unflinching prose." (Daily Telegraph)

"Powerful and well-articulated." (Roger Lewis Daily Mail)

"It is true that the private language of love doesn't generally translate; yet how vividly Barnes invokes the power and delicacy of what is lost to him." (Jane Shilling Sunday Telegraph)

"Profoundly emotive." (Sunday Times)

"He writes with aphoristic simplicity and a calm profundity, without ever sounding self-pitying, maudlin or trite. Levels of Life is at times unbearably sad, but it is also exquisite: a paean of love, and on love, and a book unexpectedly full of life." (Rosemary Goring Herald)

"A grief-stricken, achingly precise and bravely unconsoling exploration into the inadequacy of words." (Metro)

"An impassioned, raw insight into a survivor's grief." (Sport)

"A confession of grief so emotively described that it leaves the reader cold with awe." (Billy O'Callaghan Irish Examiner)

Book Description

This short, unconventional book is probably the most moving that Julian Barnes has ever written

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
You wonder where this book is going shortly after you start it, what with 19th century French and British balloonist heading aloft into the unknown, unable to navigate the unpredictable winds, encountering risks (often fatal), and landing who could foretell where. But it is a fitting metaphor for Barnes' journey through the unpredictable adventure of married love into death and absence. He begins with the notion that "You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed. People may not notice at the time, but that doesn't matter. The world has been changed nonetheless."

It's all too easy to skip over that wonderful opening, for it seems so abstract. But the passage crystallizes his theme. So, it probably helpful to go back to the opening passage from time to time in reading this short but moving book. Early ballooning, its novelty, its risks (and perhaps inevitable crashes and fatality) prove to be an insightful metaphor for the married life Barnes shared and then lost with Pat Kavanagh. The final chapter on Barnes' experience of the enduring pain of loss and grief, persisting as others around him cannot understand how utterly grief still grasps him, resembles nothing else one is likely to have read in so distilled a treatment.

The book should not be missed; few authors have had the capacity to write something so personal, yet so authentic and immediate that it speaks directly to a reader. Don't be put off by the initial oddity of the extended ballooning metaphor: it is integral to Barnes' experience and purpose and seems in its way like the extended metaphors (metaphysical conceits) of John Donne and others. Barnes' prose is spare and masterful, but one would expect that of him.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Moving 28 Sep 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I have always been a fan of Julian Barnes. I must admit that with this book I read the last section first. I wept throughout. My husband died six and a half years ago. What Barnes describes are emotions, experiences, sad, laughable, incongruous, things I went through then, feelings that still engulf me. "Entrañable" is a word in Mexico I have never been able to translate satisfactorily but which exactly describes this book. Thank you, Mr. Barnes.
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52 of 59 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An essay on grief... 4 April 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
In this short book, Barnes gives an intimate picture of his on-going grief over the death of his wife in 2008. It is not easy reading as it touches on aspects of grief that most of us will have faced at some time and will either still be going through or will with luck have moved on from. He starts with a contemplation of ballooning as a metaphor for love raising us to a higher level, but the bulk of the book is about how he has lived with his grief, including his musings on whether he would or will commit suicide.

I would prefer not to give this a 'star-rating' as it surely cannot be defined as 'I love it', 'It's OK' etc., but Amazon's review system doesn't allow for the unrated or unrateable. It is undoubtedly skilfully written and moving in parts. It is, and I'm sorry to say it, also self-indulgent - while accepting that other people have undoubtedly undergone grief, Barnes writes as if he is the first to truly experience and understand it. It also seemed strange that this man in his sixties writes as if he is encountering grief for the first time in his life. I suspect he is subtly making a case for the grief of an uxorious husband (he uses the word uxorious himself, several times) being greater than other griefs.

I would, I suspect, have found this deeply moving had it been a letter from a close friend, but its intimacy is too intense - it left me with an uncomfortable sense of voyeurism. He criticises, in ways that I'm sure would enable them to recognise themselves, his friends' attempts to console him with clichéd expressions of condolence and encouragement. Have we not all felt that? But have we not all understood the genuine warmth behind these clichés and forgiven the clumsiness? Indeed, have we not all been as clumsy when the situation was reversed?
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An exceptional book of love and loss; like no other 22 April 2014
This book is heart-warming and heartbreaking at the same time.

It's non fiction and autobiographical and is 118 pages long.

It weaves the history of hot air ballooning and the loss of author Julian Barnes' wife.

This combination may seem implausible, but somehow it works to great success.

The book is split into three sections:

1. The Sin of Height - the history of hot air ballooning. This section is very factual and unemotional. In fact I struggled to get into the book on three separate occassions because the beginning was so dry. It was worth persevering of course, as the book is exceptional and very different to anything I've ever read before.

2. On The Level - describes the personal relationship between two of the hot air balloonists from the first section.

3. The Loss of Depth - is written in the first person and solely about Julian Barnes' grief at losing his wife four years previously. It is beautifully written, very honest and in places sad, but mostly it is a testament to how much he loved her. I have never read a more accurate portrayal of bereavement, in either non fiction or fiction before. Whilst reading the last chapter, I found myself rationing the pages left to read, as I didn't want the book to end.

I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys well written, intelligent and deeply moving literature about what it is to be human.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars An exquisite book, ingeniously linking an fascinating insight into ...
An exquisite book, ingeniously linking an fascinating insight into the history of hot air ballooning with a personal essay on the enduring pain of loss. Read more
Published 17 days ago by ABL
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
One of the best books about grief that I have read.
Published 1 month ago by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars Life
This is one of the most thought provoking books I have ever read. It is lucidly written , at times amusing, at times profoundly sad. Not a long book, it does not need to be . Read more
Published 1 month ago by gwynneth m littleton
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Very honest and beautifully written- short
Published 1 month ago by apollyg
4.0 out of 5 stars bought for the last section which is very worthwhile. ...
bought for the last section which is very worthwhile. The first two take a bit of dedication to get the most from.
Published 1 month ago by I. King
5.0 out of 5 stars Great writing
Unlike current Scandi or US fiction, Barnes' books are restrained and un-self-indulgent. This may feel old-fashionedly English but is moving as the result of incisive... Read more
Published 2 months ago by Maggie BG
4.0 out of 5 stars Raw and Emotional
This is s strange book in some ways. There are three distinct sections; the first on hot air balloons; the Sin of Height. The second is on photography: On the Level. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Half Man, Half Book
4.0 out of 5 stars Balloons, Bernhardt, Barnaby and... Job's comforters
I enjoyed the first part of this book which focussed on the joys and disasters of the early balloonists. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Dr. W. H. Konarzewski
1.0 out of 5 stars A history of Ballooning
I only started reading this as it was the Book of the Month in my Book Club. I am making no sense of it what-so-ever and I have stopped reading it about a third of the way in. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Kay Adkins
5.0 out of 5 stars a must read
One of the most insightful books I have read and one of those books you will want to keep and read again.
Published 2 months ago by Susan Bates
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