Levels of Life by Julian Barnes

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Julian Barnes has given us an extraordinary book, biography and memoir in one.

In part one of three, entitled ‘The Sin of Height’ we are immersed into the history of ballooning and man’s immorality for striving to reach such unnatural heights. As Barnes says, unlike the birds:

‘men and women had long legs and empty backs and God made them
like that for a reason.’

The thread throughout the book is that when ‘you put together two things that have not been put together before … the world is changed.’ In the first instance this is ballooning and photography, which as the opening chapter explains, requires a certain kind of mastery. Today we think nothing of photographs taken from extreme heights, but the first images must have been spectacular, I imagine like when colour television first began.

Barnes notes that we live on a level, but that as humans we aspire; ‘some soar in art, others with religion, most with love’. Inevitably then, there has to be a crash landing. The balloon works as a metaphor for life. Barnes is an uxorious man (a word he likes to use a lot) and devotes the book to his wife, Pat who he soared with for thirty years of marriage. Her death has caused Barnes to plummet from the balloon.

Barnes bravely unbears his feelings of grief, abandonment, longing and mourning, but he refrains from sharing the secrets of their lives, such as his wife’s last words and rightly so. I agree with Barnes that grief and the experience of death is something you can only understand if you go through it yourself.

He reveals his contempt at the insensitive and lack of understanding remarks from his friends, who have not grasped the desolate crater that is filled only with the ‘inconsolable longing.’

It is extremely poignant when Barnes quotes a passage from one of his early fictions when he imagines for the sake of one of his characters what the death of a loved one feels like. It is spot on, but of course now it is reality and far from fiction.

Left only with his ‘caverns of memory’ and even those don’t always serve him well, Barnes says that he still talks to her as though she were there – after all she was the fabric of his life and they still continue to soar together …

 

By Heather Wells