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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Barnes offers a unique insight into love, loss, and grief: a not to be missed experience
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...
Published 11 months ago by James Connelly

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18 of 23 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Dignity in loss.
There are 3 parts to this book. The first half of the book deals with two topics. The first part is about the early years of aeronautics ie. ballooning, and how it came eventually to be linked to aerial photography. Two previously unconnected skills which have enjoyed a long and fruitful relationship. The second part is about a contrived meeting between a famous...
Published 15 months ago by Cormac Farrell


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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Barnes offers a unique insight into love, loss, and grief: a not to be missed experience, 8 Sep 2013
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This review is from: Levels of Life (Hardcover)
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
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This review is from: Levels of Life (Hardcover)
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
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FictionFan (Kirkintilloch, Scotland) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Levels of Life (Hardcover)
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? But I think it is his musing on the possibility of his own suicide, a future he does not wholly rule out, that left me feeling I had read a private letter addressed to someone else.

We will all react differently to this book and for some it may provide comfort to know that the feelings we feel are not unique to us. I wish I could have written an uncritical review of this - I considered not posting a review at all, but it seems to me that some people will be misled by the publisher's blurb, as I was, and find themselves reading not a novel about 'ballooning, photography, love and grief' but an essay on Barnes' personal road through his own grief - a road it seems he is still travelling.
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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 review is from: Levels of Life (Paperback)
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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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Short and beautifully written, 12 Jun 2013
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Valley (Bournemouth) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Levels of Life (Hardcover)
Julian Barnes writes beautifully and this book begins with the story of a balloonist and an actress and their love story. This is very interesting but outside of the author but seems to give the author permission in the second half of this book to share his love story and his loss. He writes this without sentimentality, but in a very moving way. He shares much that remains in my mind and prompted reflection - I feel a sort of privilege to have been able to share this snapshot of him. An excellent read which leaves much to remember.
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29 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "perhaps, with luck, to France", 5 April 2013
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emma who reads a lot (London) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Levels of Life (Hardcover)
We meet in this book a man who feels his life has been completely, irretrievably ruined by the loss of his wife. Though two interesting stories come before (about ballooning and Sarah Bernhardt) the main energy, soul, focus of the book is the last section, a grief-drenched piece of writing by her widower, describing what came after the death of Pat Kavanagh.

Barnes has always dedicated his books to his wife, and this one is no exception, and I found myself at times almost feeling envious of the extent of feeling he had for her. How lucky he was (and so also, how unlucky) to find someone he was able to love with such longevity and depth, feeling she was 'sexy', clever AND the ideal long-distance walking companion - there's not many that can say that.

Others have already remarked on the discomfort that attacks the reader as they glimpse the world of a mourner who cannot forgive clumsy, ill-thought ventures by others to say 'the right thing'. I thought this third section was brutally frank but also beautifully constructed - it doesn't have his prose's usual balance and wit, which isn't surprising given the subject matter, but it does have all its traditional power. He is able to capture so perfectly his own desire to watch unimportant football matches and his new addiction to opera, with all its dramatic, over-the-top emotions - suddenly making sense to a grieving husband.

The book repays re-reading. It ends with an odd sentence about escaping, 'perhaps with luck, to France'. This brings the whole book back to its beginning with the very earliest attempts to cross the channel in balloons. I loved this sense of completeness and circularity, in a book which seemed so ravaging at times. I loved how it connected with all his other writings and his passionate sense of France. (And I loved how it reminded me of standing on those clifftops by the Bleriot memorial looking back towards England!) It's by far his saddest book, but don't miss it.

PS To remind yourself that Pat was also lucky to have him, try afterwards reading Nothing To Be Frightened Of, one of the best, funniest, sweetest, most fantastic books about being afraid of dying / families / memory. A great counterbalance.

Update, 22 May
I just re-read this book, and on re-reading I noticed even more the connections between the different sections. On first go, the bareness of the grief in the final chapter is so raw that I ended up ignoring what a well-textured book it is overall (I see other readers here have been flummoxed by the same contrast). Second time around I saw how much the earlier sections emphasise lifting off, viewing the world from above, leaving earthly cares behind; I felt this clearly related to the ideas of the third section, about loss, suicide, death. And I was much more moved by the details of section 2: a tall Englishman meets a tiny, fine-boned, beautiful, Slav-eyed foreigner and falls completely in love with her, but cannot keep her with him.... His name is Mr 'Burnaby' - too close to Barnes! These first two sections now seem to me completely relevant, essential, and beautiful.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautifully written.., 20 April 2014
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This review is from: Levels of Life (Paperback)
Very poignant account of loss and its sequelae.
Written with great lucidity and sincerity.
Highly recommended for those who have lost a spouse or partner.
Thank you for sharing this!
M C
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Julian Barnes - Loss and longing, 4 April 2013
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Red on Black - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Levels of Life (Hardcover)
Having set down Julian Barnes last book "The sense of an ending" wondering what ever happened to a decent conclusion and determined never to read him again, this reviewer is glad of the glowing review by John Carey of his new book in the Sunday Times which led to reconsideration. Like Barnes's Booker Prize book "Levels of Life" can be read in one short session. But unlike that book it has more emotion, pain, passion and impact in one page than his previous rather dry novella managed in 160. "Levels of Life" is a trilogy of chapters and in its simplest form a melding together of an essay, short story and memoir with ballooning and photography as a metaphors. The book's first part "The Sin of Height" is a pleasant discourse about hot air ballooning and those eccentric French "balloon going classes" who were its pioneers. It is a slow and occasionally a mildly amusing essay and for some reason Monty Python's "Golden Age of Ballooning" sketch kept flashing into view. It introduces three primary characters the great actress Sara Bernhardt, the English soldier and explorer Frederick Burnaby and the famous aerial photographer Nadar. It points to the exhilaration of ballooning as Barnes states "Height was moral, height was spiritual" and quotes Victor Hugo's remark about an "Eagle with a soul". But ballooning was also dangerous and many deaths occurred not least the poor Newcastle lad who fell out of a basket with the impact driving "his legs into a flower bed as far as his knees, and ruptured his internal organs which burst out onto the ground". The second and easily weakest part of the book "On the level" lifts Bernhardt and Burnaby from the first chapter and plots an imagined romance between them. It does nothing out of the ordinary other than to offer clues about what is to follow. In this respect the line that "love is the meeting place point of truth and magic, Truth as in photography, magic as in ballooning" is of real importance.

Barnes book bears the simple dedication "For Pat" and the last part of the trilogy "The loss of depth" is a memoir, which concentrates on his emotional shellshock at the loss of his wife the literary agent Pat Kavanagh who died of a brain tumour on 20 October 2008. The gentle chapters that precede this are effectively ruptured by a heartbreakingly poignant and often unbearable tour de force of writing as Barnes charts her "thirty seven days from diagnosis to death" and his personal devastation. The hardest soul will find that his words choke your emotions and it is difficult on times to turn to the next page. Barnes speaks of Kavanagh as "The heart of my life; the life of my heart". He imagines growing old with her in "collaborative reconciliation" and yet it is not to be. He rages against the use of the euphemistic verb "pass" - "I'm sorry to hear your wife has passed (as in passed water, passed blood"?) and argues that the "grief struck are not depressed, just properly, appropriately, mathematically ('it hurts exactly as much as it is worth') sad". This chapter is relentless and moving beyond words. Anyone who has entered the black hole of a love lost will recognise the irrationality, anger and raw sadness. Barnes "feels less interesting without her" and compares her death upon him to the forceful impact on the Newcastle lad who fell from the balloon mentioned above. Barnes as the quintessential English writer performs a very un-English feat for a nation renown for its stoicism and reserve. He pours out his feelings in a way that Joni Mitchell does in song. He contemplates suicide and aches that he will "never see, hear, touch, embrace, listen to, laugh with; never again wait for her footstep....fit her body into mine, mine into hers". Despite the "terror of the foyer" some respite comes with a growing passion for opera. But he worries that with times passage that she is slipping away a second time as "Memory - the minds photographic archive - is failing". Reading this work hurts not least when at one point he devastatingly compares his grief to "a gull who comes out of an oil slick, you are tarred and feathered for life".

Inevitably it is the last chapter that dominates "Levels of life", although strangely the book needs the first two in the same way as a strong foundation is required for building a house. This short book is so packed with the truth of Barnes experience that you feel that at last a veil has dropped and the real Barnes is there naked for all to see. It contains some of the best writing that Julian Barnes has put to paper and while it only takes a couple of hours to read parts of it will stay with you forever.
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18 of 23 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Dignity in loss., 21 May 2013
By 
This review is from: Levels of Life (Hardcover)
There are 3 parts to this book. The first half of the book deals with two topics. The first part is about the early years of aeronautics ie. ballooning, and how it came eventually to be linked to aerial photography. Two previously unconnected skills which have enjoyed a long and fruitful relationship. The second part is about a contrived meeting between a famous soldier/balloonist and a glamorous actress of the day, which despite the element of planning does not lead to a long and fruitful relationship.

The second half of the book is an elongated essay which describes the grief and the loss which Julian Barnes feels following the death of his beloved wife Pat Kavanagh.

From a critical point of view (although some rather obvious metaphorical connections are hinted at) it is hard to lend any credence to the point of view that these three items belong between the same covers. They appear to me to be totally unrelated.

As he writes about his unrelenting sadness following the death of Pat, you cannot help but feel for him and you must accept the total honesty with which he commits those feelings to paper, but you must also ask the question, what does it have to do with ballooning and aerial photography and the unrequited love of a long dead soldier/ adventurer?

As with most of Julian Barnes novels, there is beauty and clarity in his writing, but he betrays something of himself which I (and other reviewers obviously) find unappealing. A sense that his overpowering sadness elevates him above the more mundane sadness of other bereaved people. A cruel and undignified contempt for the attempts of others to sympathise with him. Indeed, no response to his sadness satisfies him. He does not attempt to acknowledge that people are trying in their own way to offer what comfort and sympathy they can in an impossible situation. Although grief can be overpowering, it is arrogant and unkind to be so dismissive of people and despite the circumstances it is unacceptable behaviour.

Death is the cruellest of thieves, but we should acknowledge those who spare us a little kindness. If there is nothing they can say to assuage the grief, and yet you are disgusted at those who choose to say nothing, you have shut the door on everybody. Think a little on that. I hope to God that Julian Barnes finds some ray of hope sometime in his life. He has certainly suffered enough.

As a book I don't recommend it because I don't see that it has helped anyone. Maybe I'm wrong.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars something, 18 Jun 2013
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This review is from: Levels of Life (Kindle Edition)
I find his writing like entering an antique shop. A whimsical collection of lexical trinkets, (social mathematics, art commentary, obscure historical characters, sober reflections and their discourse), scattered in space and time on shelves with unrelated affection and quaint curiosity. Brilliant sentences crafted with superfluous consideration and gift for those fortunate enough to have the luxury of time to browse through them. But it is only on leaving, that last glance back from the door, when the tiny old bell on the doorframe tinkles, that you realise he has laid out this room with the most intimate neatness. Not a corner without care. It is precisely loose and poetically relevant. And he has woven all these objects, abstractness, into something succinct and complete. With such personal honesty and taste that you cannot help but feel somewhere unique and special. This store of jumble is deceptively stocked with everything you need to tidy up the universe a bit. In this thrifty little book he has made a wonderful display of those subjects we all struggle to package into our barcode boxes. Love. Loneliness. Loss. Grief. Death. It makes a lot of sense, and all the more poignantly so in an endeavour to settle his own dust.
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Levels of Life
Levels of Life by Julian Barnes (Hardcover - 4 April 2013)
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