Not all books can make us cry and those that do are often so shamefully sentimental that we can’t easily admit to reading them, let alone crying with them. This, however, is not the case with Julian Barnes’s Levels of Life, a novella-length text in three chapters, which produces in its reader tears of the most literary kind.
The book’s first two chapters concern the adventures of a set of nineteenth century figures from England and France: the most popular actress of the time, Sarah Bernhardt, the photographer Gaspard-Félix Tournachon (popularly known as Nadar), and Fred Burnaby, a colonel in the Royal Horse Guards, a cavalry regiment of the British Army. All of those characters are devoted aeronauts and are fascinated by balloons and their machinations. Levels of Life begins in a cheerful mood, with the ascent of the trio from the ground in separate balloons. Some of them are accompanied by bottles of champagne, others by copies of the London Times and all with high hopes of witnessing great landscapes.
Burnaby and his French friends seem to have the best time, clinking their glasses and discussing whether the monarchy or the republic is the better system. Barnes does an excellent job in describing the differences between the aeronautical cultures on two sides of the English Channel. In England the Aeronautical Society’s members include a number of lords and dukes while in France the Societe des aeronautes, founded by Nadar, is more of an artistic society, listing Alexandre Dumas, père et fils, and George Sand among its members.
There are descriptions of the first balloon and the pleasure it brought to aeronauts in the eighteenth century. There are snapshots of accidents and violence, too. A young man dies in Newcastle, falling to earth from “a height of several hundred feet,” his internal organs bursting out on to the ground. Then there are references to ballooning’s cultural significance (according to Nadar the three supreme emblems of modernity are “photography, electricity and aeronautics”) as well as the political hopes it had inspired. Victor Hugo and progressives in France believed that balloons could bring democracy to the world. Barnes doesn’t seem to share their enthusiasm. Aeronautics did not lead to democracy, he jokes, “unless budget airlines count.”
There is an enjoyable portrait of Nadar, “a journalist, caricaturist, photographer, balloonist, entrepreneur and inventor, a keen registerer of patents and founder of companies.” His fascinating life story floats above Victorian history, drifting from one project to another, very much like a balloon. He arises as a man more interested in the vertical than the horizontal. Nadar’s fascination with height and Paris sewers are accompanied by Barnes’s own memories in Paris as a young man.
After “The Sin of Height” and “On The Level,” a rather flat chapter in which Barnes dramatizes the relationship between Burnaby and Bernhardt, we reach “The Loss of Depth.” Here, the cheerful historical figures of the book leave the stage to a couple (Barnes and his wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh who died in 2007) who play the tragic last days of their relationship before our eyes. Kavanagh is a co-author of Levels of Life in the sense that it is above all her memory that defines and gives meaning to this text.
Barnes and Kavanagh have loved each other intensely for many decades:
We were together for thirty years. I was thirty-two when we met, sixty-two when she died. The heart of my life; the life of my heart. And though she hated the idea of growing old — in her twenties, she thought she would never live past forty — I happily looked forward to our continuing life together: to things becoming slower and calmer, to collaborative recollection.
Reading this chapter one feels as if the balloon in which they began traveling together all those years ago is now occupied only by the reader and Barnes whose job it is to look at the distance they traveled as a couple. The thirty seven days between the diagnosis of Kavanagh’s illness and her death form the emotional core here, as do Barnes’s experiences of desperation and grief.
It is the abrupt and sudden severing of a relationship that makes Barnes’s prose so unbearably intense. “You put together two people who have not been put together before,” he muses, “then, at some point, sooner or later, for this reason or that, one of them is taken away. And what is taken away is greater than the sum of what was there.”
What was taken from him with Kavanagh’s death had been alluded to in different texts, but in a decisively covert manner. A quick look at some of the titles of Barnes’s most recent books gives a good idea about his experience: Nothing to Be Frightened Of, The Sense of an Ending. Although both of these books have death as their central theme Levels of Life is the first text in which Barnes tries to come to terms with the experience of losing Kavanagh.
In his essay “The Philosophy of Composition” Edgar Allan Poe argued that the death of a beautiful woman is “unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world.” That Kavanagh is dead and Barnes, a master of the English language and certainly one of the more significant innovators of the English novel, is here to tell the tale of her death, is sufficient to make these recollections poetical. For Barnes, the death of a loved one had become a source of inspiration, however painful that experience might have been. Completed four years after Kavanagh’s death, his recollections reflect not only his ongoing feeling of desperation but also his fascination with the idea of death. It is as if Barnes, who had loved words and his wife more than anything else in the world, had to endure the pain of losing one of his beloved things. This leaves him alone with the other thing: literature.
Levels of Life ends, surprisingly I think, in a light and cheerful note, with the image of France. His devoted readers will know that French culture is one of Barnes’s intellectual passions which, one by one, continue to receive the delicate attention of this unique writer.