on 8 September 2013
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.
on 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.
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.
on 28 September 2013
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.
on 30 June 2015
I first heard of this book on 8 June 2015, when Robert Preston (who lost his wife a few years back) and Eddie Mair interviewed Julian Barnes, on BBC Radio 4, about bereavement and the book.
I lost my darling wife Sue 8 months ago and am glad I didn't come to the book before now as much of what he wrote is with the benefit of an extended period of grief and I needed to feel this for myself, in my own way, before listening to somebody else's experience. The truth of such a loss, and in fact any loss I suppose, which came across so well in the book, is that the grief never diminishes, time does not shrink it, rather time allows you to grow and see it for what it is.
It is still early days for me but I will keep this precious book with me and explore its 118 pages many more times as the months and years go by, but, at the moment, the most familiar passages are those that refer to that which is lost being more than the sum of its parts, Sue & I made 3.
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.
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.
on 12 June 2013
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.
on 30 January 2015
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.
on 2 July 2015
Much has been written by other reviewers to give the necomer to this book some idea of what they are in for. I found the first part a little confusing to begin with, and did not make the connection easily between the two halves of the book, although having made it to the end, the whole thing did make more sense. It was a very honest book I felt, and the author has been through some terribly difficult times, as have many people, but there is something about it that leaves me feeling uncomfortable. It is very hard to know how to comfort and support our friends and family who suffer bereavement, as we often feel we might get it wrong. When recounting his friends' remarks and conversations, the author is very hard on them for their insensitivities and perceived lack of understanding of his situation. One could argue that the book will help people not to make so many 'mistakes' when dealing with others' grief, but as each person responds uniquely to their own loss, I feel the insights offered here will be of limited help to us. I now feel even more aware of the awful possibility of saying something 'in error' that could further injure an already fractured and broken-hearted person. I am glad I read this book, and I have gained something from it, although I could not really put my finger on what that something is.