Levels of Life by Julian Barnes

Levels of Life

I read Levels of Life, by Julian Barnes. The novel is a reflection on love and loss, using ballooning as a metaphor.

The book is divided into three sections. The first section, “The Sin of Height,” is presented in historical facts and quotations. Three famous real-life aeronauts are introduced: officer Fred Burnaby, actress Sarah Bernhardt, and inventor Gaspard-Félix Tournachon. Their opinions and motivations are revealed.

The three aeronauts were ballooning when it was relatively new and dangerous. Aeronauts were celebrities.

Barnes states how humans were not meant to fly, but with the advent of ballooning, now people had the ability to. Ballooning is a “moral” activity: the aeronauts have a newfound perspective, that of god looking down. And when Tournachon combined ballooning with the new field of photography, something special had been created, something that transcended the two fields individually.

The second section, “On the Level,” is a fictional account of an affair between Fred Burnaby and Sarah Bernhardt. The real-life Burnaby was a courageous swashbuckler who explored Russia when it was closed to travelers. His life was filled with tales of derring-do in his military exploits and adventures. Burnaby is not portrayed this way in the book. Rather, he is a vulnerable man that is hopelessly in love with the actress. When he tells her his feelings, he is friend-zoned like all of Bernhardt’s past suitors. Then Burnaby dies in a military campaign, his last thoughts somehow tied to his time with Bernhardt.

The third section, “The Loss of Depth,” reads as a memoir, it is Barnes working through the grief over his wife.

Like other novels by Barnes, Levels of Life is extremely well-written, with insightful quotations throughout. The metaphor of ballooning high above ground to love is thoroughly explored. However, I found the novel lacked cohesion, especially the transition between the fictional second section and the narrative third section. Here we have Fred Burnaby being rejected by Bernhardt, immediately followed by Barnes’ emotional train-of-thought discussion on losing his wife. The former was portrayed as some brief fling, how could it possibly be compared to Barnes’ marriage of over thirty years? The book read as three different novels with three distinct styles, forced together through some overarching metaphor that did not quite work. Nevertheless, the book was thought-provoking and made me cry. Success!

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