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30 of 31 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 19 months ago by James Connelly

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Picture of a private, individual, unrequited grief
Solipsistic and raw, rejects others' well-meaning gestures. I presume there are no children and my own experience (my wife of 33 years died at the same age at the same time) this does make a big difference to the grieving process. But many thoughts and metaphors that made me nod my head and sigh / chuckle / take a deep breath / shake my head in recognition. Writing it...
Published 23 months ago by pimlicon


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30 of 31 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 Sept. 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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7 of 7 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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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Moving, 28 Sept. 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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55 of 62 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An essay on grief..., 4 April 2013
By 
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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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Elegant, understated, moving, 24 Sept. 2014
By 
Jl Adcock "John Adcock" (Ashtead UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Levels of Life (Paperback)
Grief is such a personal thing that it is hard to write about, and even harder, surely, to share in the public domain. It either comes over as self-pitying or sensationalist, and yet Julian Barnes has managed to avoid those pitfalls here and produce an honest, pared back exploration of what it means to have loved someone and then lost them.

"Levels of Life" pulls no punches. It is direct, stripped back, and told with an economy of style that Barnes has really honed in much of his recent output. Whether it be in short stories, novels or memoir, he seems to have reached new heights in telling powerful stories in honest, beautiful language.

As other reviewers have commented, the opening sections on various characters and their love of ballooning and adventure don't initially seem much related to the powerful last third of the book. And yet they are important in sketching out the connections we make, the views of life we discover, and the patterns we inevitably look for in order to make sense of life and what it brings us.

The point that Barnes makes about not having loved at all being worse than having found someone and then lost them is extremely powerful. Almost a wake-up call to get out and live llife to the full and to share it, even though what lies in store is never going to be anything less than painful when grief and mourning come calling.

Not since Blake Morrison's "And When Did You Last See Your Father?" - have I read such a restrained and honest account of one of life's most feared - yet inevitable - experiences. Moving, elegant, essential - read it.
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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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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars So moving that I wish I wasn't required to rate it, 30 Jan. 2015
This review is from: Levels of Life (Kindle Edition)
These three short pieces slide into one another, although they are ostensibly very different. The first is factual and the second is mostly imagined, although the people are real. In them, every word is perfectly chosen and placed to make reading them an almost sensual experience. However, it is the third piece, in which Barnes writes about the death of his wife, that will stay in my memory forever. This is not an outpouring of grief, rather it is a precise dissection of it. Grief has many components and the author considers them one by one with forensic skill.

I have never known grief of this magnitude, but this book has made me understand something of what it would be like. One thing I am sure of though, is that no amount of foreknowledge would be any consolation.
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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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4.0 out of 5 stars Raw and Emotional, 29 Jun. 2014
This review is from: Levels of Life (Hardcover)
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. And the final one on his late wife: The Loss of Depth.

The first two sections make for interesting reading, nothing particularly profound, just a series of interesting anecdotes and facts on hot air balloons and photography in the formative years of those disciplines. At the end of these it was definitely a two star read, nicely written, but i couldn’t quote see the link.

The final section though is the foundation of the book, and the part that ties it all together. He writes about his late wife Pat Kavanagh who died in 2008. They had been married for 29 years, and even though he doesn’t say, I guess that they had been together for a period of time before that, meaning that he had known her for a significant period of his life. The details that he remembers about her are the little things, a shared moment, an oft repeated phrase, an endearing habit. But most of all he talks about her absence and the complete hole that her death has left in her life, how it is difficult to socialise as a widower with couples now, and how talking about his wife is now a taboo subject for people.

In hi moments of greatest anguish he contemplates suicide, even going as far to devise the preferred method, but is never brave enough to take that extra step. As he starts to circulate in social circles again he find he prefers theatres and in particular the opera as he can be social and be alone. He finds is hardest to deal with those who ask if he is not over it yet. As he says he never will be over it, as he remembers the last words, the final events, the anniversaries and other events.

It is heart rending in lots of ways, as he says grief is the negative image of love, and this raw account of his feelings gives you some insight into his love for her.
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4.0 out of 5 stars An essay on Grief, 26 July 2013
This review is from: Levels of Life (Hardcover)
This review discusses the last of the three essays that comprise this book, the essay that describes Barnes' grief at the loss of his wife, Pat Kavanaugh. As usual with Barnes it is written with flair, style,elegance. Apparently the couple had a close- to- perfectly happy marriage which ended suddenly thirty- seven days after she was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Barnes to my mind rightly eschews complex medical terminology and focuses on the more common and basic vocabuiary of loss: grief, sadness, love. Barnes does not describe his wife, does not tell in any great detail the story of the marriage. The essay is about his grief and loss, and in a way about grief and loss in general. He is very concerned with the reaction of friends which he faults for not providing 'corroboration' of his loss. In one incident he tells about mentioning his wife's name three times to old friends at lunch and being disappointed when not one dares to speak about her. He speaks about the loneliness of no longer being able to share reactions to experiences. He talks briefly about suicide and tells why he rejects it as it would take from the world the one person who knows most about his wife. He dismisses any kind of religious comfort or consolation. He describes what has happened with the odd phrase 'The universe has just been doing its stuff'. He does not speak about any possible future relationship for himself. Despite the clearly all- encompassing character
of his loss Barnes somehow writes as if he is holding the deepest grief at a distance.
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