Levels of Life by Julian Barnes. Illustration by Nathan Gelgud, 2013.
Julian Barnes begins his new memoir Levels of Life, about the loss of his wife, with talk of hot air balloons and Sarah Bernhardt. The book’s first two sections are narrated with calm omniscience, relaying a condensed history of Anglo-French ballooning and a mostly imagined story about a love affair between Bernhardt and traveler Fred Burnaby. It’s absorbing and surprising stuff, filled with precise detail. Bernhardt was slim enough not to need an umbrella (she ran between raindrops). Pioneers of hot air ballooning were called balloonatics. Photography taken from balloons was perception-altering stuff, as people saw the world from above.
But what exactly are we reading here? Barnes, a Booker Prize-winning novelist and essayist, doesn’t do much of anything to explicitly connect his first two sections to the book’s most substantial chapter, in which he examines his grief over the loss of his wife. But the connections are there, and part of the fun of the book is sensing them: the exciting lift of leaving the ground for the first time and the thrill of new love and the risks inherent in both of them.
Barnes remembers his wife, deals with his pain, and walks us through what it was like for him. He lost her devastatingly quickly -- “37 days from diagnosis to death.” Would it be too much to say he fell out of the balloon? Either way, he plummets. He talks himself out of suicide, if only because he is the one with the most memories of her. He relates the misguided responses of friends, and forgives them. He talks about the pain of telling casual acquaintances, people with whom he shares no mutual network of friends to spread the word without his help.
In precision is universality, and a reader feels that this sort of loss could befall anyone. And, of course, it does, all the time. When it happens to Barnes, he’s introspective, occasionally angry, and skeptical about his own responses. A book that starts out about a famous actress and a crazy pastime doesn’t seem at first like it could be a way of working through loss, but you get the feeling that for Barnes, this is the chief function of Levels of Life. Fortunately for us, it’s an unconventional and deeply felt memoir that exceeds its requirements.
To purchase the originals of Nathan Gelgud's Signature drawings, visit his Etsy page.