An NPR Best Book of the Year
In this elegant triptych of history, fiction, and memoir, Julian Barnes has written about ballooning and photography, love and grief; about putting two things, and two people, together, and tearing them apart; and enduring after the incomprehensible loss of a loved one. Powerfully rendered, exquisitely crafted in Barnes’s erudite style, this searing work confirms the author as an unparalleled magus of the heart.
ON THE LEVEL
You put together two things that have not been put together before; and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Pilâtre de Rozier, the first man to ascend in a fire balloon, also planned to be the first to fly the Channel from France to England. To this end he constructed a new kind of aerostat, with a hydrogen balloon on top, to give greater lift, and a fire balloon beneath, to give better control. He put these two things together, and on the 15th of June 1785, when the winds seemed favourable, he made his ascent from the Pas-de-Calais. The brave new contraption rose swiftly, but before it had even reached the coastline, flame appeared at the top of the hydrogen balloon, and the whole, hopeful aerostat, now looking to one observer like a heavenly gas lamp, fell to earth, killing both pilot and co-pilot.
You put together two people who have not been put together before; and sometimes the world is changed, sometimes not. They may crash and burn, or burn and crash. But sometimes, something new is made, and then the world is changed. Together, in that first exaltation, that first roaring sense of uplift, they are greater than their two separate selves. Together, they see further, and they see more clearly.
Of course, love may not be evenly matched; perhaps it rarely is. To put it another way: how did those besieged Parisians of 1870-71 get replies to their letters? You can fly a balloon out from the Place St.-Pierre and assume it will land somewhere useful; but you can hardly expect the winds, however patriotic, to blow it back to Montmartre on a return flight. Various stratagems were proposed: for example, placing the return correspondence in large metal globes and floating them downstream into the city, there to be caught in nets. Pigeon post was a more obvious idea, and a Batignolles pigeon fancier put his dovecote at the authorities’ disposal: a basket of birds might be flown out with each siege balloon, and return bearing letters. But compare the freight capacity of a balloon and a pigeon, and imagine the weight of disappointment. According to Nadar, the solution came from an engineer who worked in sugar manufacture. Letters intended for Paris were to be written in a clear hand, on one side of the paper, with the recipient’s address at the top. Then, at the collecting station, hundreds of them would be laid side by side on a large screen and photographed. The image would be micrographically reduced, flown into Paris by carrier pigeon, and enlarged back to readable size. The revived letters were then put into envelopes and delivered to their addressees. It was better than nothing; indeed, it was a technical triumph. But imagine a pair of lovers, one able to write privately and at length on both sides of the page, and hide the tenderest words in an envelope; the other constrained by brevity and the knowledge that private feelings might be publicly inspected by photographers and postmen. Although—isn’t that how love sometimes feels, and works?
Sarah Bernhardt was photographed by Nadar—first the father, later the son—throughout her life. Her first session took place when she was about twenty, at the time Félix Tournachon was also involved in another tumultuous, if briefer, career: that of The Giant. Sarah is not yet Divine—she is unknown, aspiring; yet the portraits already show her a star.
She is simply posed, wrapped in a velvet cloak, or an enveloping shawl. Her shoulders are bare; she wears no jewellery except a small pair of cameo earrings; her hair is virtually undressed. So is she: there is more than a hint that she wears little beneath that cloak, that shawl. Her expression is withholding, and thus alluring. She is, of course, very beautiful, perhaps more so to the modern eye than at the time. She seems to embody truthfulness, theatricality and mystery—and make those abstractions compatible. Nadar also took a nude photograph which some claim is of her. It shows a woman, naked to the waist, peek-a-booing with one eye from behind a spread fan. Whatever the case, the portraits of Sarah cloaked and shawled are decidedly more erotic.
Scarcely five feet tall, she was not considered the right size for an actress; also, too pale and too thin. She seemed impulsive and natural in both life and art; she broke theatrical rules, often turning upstage to deliver a speech. She slept with all her leading men. She loved fame and self-publicity—or, as Henry James silkily put it, she was “a figure so admirably suited for conspicuity.” One critic compared her successively to a Russian princess, a Byzantine empress and a Muscat begum, before concluding: “Above all, she is as Slav as one can be. She is much more Slav than all the Slavs I have ever met.” In her early twenties she had an illegitimate son, whom she took everywhere with her, heedless of disapproval. She was Jewish in a largely anti-Semitic France, while in Catholic Montreal they stoned her carriage. She was brave and doughty.
Naturally, she had enemies. Her success, her sex, her racial origin and her bohemian extravagance reminded the puritanical why actors used to be buried in unhallowed ground. And over the decades her acting style, once so original, inevitably dated, since naturalness onstage is just as much an artifice as naturalism in the novel. If the magic always worked for some—Ellen Terry called her “transparent as an azalea” and compared her stage presence to “smoke from a burning paper”—others were less kind. Turgenev, though a Francophile and himself a dramatist, found her “false, cold, affected,” and condemned her “repulsive Parisian chic.”
Fred Burnaby was often described as bohemian. His official biographer wrote that he lived “entirely aloof, absolutely regardless of conventionalities.” And he had known the exoticism which Bernhardt merely appropriated. A traveller might bring reports back to Paris from afar; a playwright would pillage them for themes and effects; then a designer and costumier would perfect the illusion around her. Burnaby had been that traveller: he had gone deep into Russia, across Asia Minor and the Middle East, up the Nile. He had crossed Fashoda country, where both sexes went naked and dyed their hair bright yellow. Stories that adhered to him often featured Circassian girls, gypsy dancers and pretty Kirghiz widows.
He claimed descent from Edward I, the king known as Longshanks, and displayed virtues of courage and truth-speaking which the English imagine unique to themselves. Yet there was something unsettling about him. His father was said to be “melancholy as the padge-owl that hooted in his park,” and Fred, though vigorous and extrovert, inherited this trait. He was enormously strong, yet frequently ill, tormented by liver and stomach pains; “gastric catarrh” once drove him to a foreign spa. And though “very popular in London and Paris,” and a member of the Prince of Wales’s circle, he was described by the Dictionary of National Biography as living “much alone.”
The conventional accept and are frequently charmed by a certain unconventionality; Burnaby seems to have exceeded that limit. One of his devoted friends called him “the most slovenly rascal that ever lived,” who sat “like a sack of corn on a horse.” He was held to be foreign-looking, with “oriental features” and a Mephistophelean smile. The DNB called his looks “Jewish and Italian,” noting that his “unEnglish” appearance “led him to resist attempts to procure portraits of him.”
We live on the flat, on the level, and yet—and so— we aspire. Groundlings, we can sometimes reach as far as the gods. Some soar with art, others with religion; most with love. But when we soar, we can also crash. There are few soft landings. We may find ourselves bouncing across the ground with leg-fracturing force, dragged towards some foreign railway line. Every love story is a potential grief story. If not at first, then later. If not for one, then for the other. Sometimes, for both.
So why do we constantly aspire to love? Because love is the meeting point of truth and magic. Truth, as in photography; magic, as in ballooning.
“Shattering. . . . Simultaneously wise, funny and devastating. . . . A fascinating discourse on love and sorrow.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Elegant. . . . Deeply stirring. . . . Barnes’s account of his grief [has] a fierce and fiery kind of momentum. Within a few pages it is aloft.” —The Boston Globe
“Levels of Life would seem to pull off the impossible: to recreate, on the page, what it is like to be alive in the world.” —The Guardian (London)
“Wonderful. . . . Not a grief memoir so much as a grief meditation. . . . Short, crisp, measured, and deeply felt.” —The New York Review of Books
“A rumination on grief and the alchemical power of love.” —O, the Oprah Magazine
“This is the most inventive and honest portrayal of grief we’ve read. . . . Barnes approaches memoir, a genre that too often errs on the side of sentimental, with complete grace.” —The Huffington Post
“Powerful. . . . ‘Sorrow is a kind of rust of the soul,’ Barnes quotes Samuel Johnson. Levels of Life boldly and beautifully buffs the corrosion.” —NPR
“Artistically exquisite. . . . A penetrating, absorbing and deeply moving study of love, heartbreak and the process of mourning.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune
“A powerful dirge and slender but shapely work of art.” —The Daily Beast
“Evocative and moving. . . . Levels of Life is a magically sad work, a record of loss that is also a record of life, whose shared stories heighten one another.” —The Brooklyn Rail
“Stunning. . . . Deceptively compact but takes us deep. . . . Still grieving, still longing himself, Barnes, like Nadar from above in his hot air balloon, has given us a perspective never seen before.” —The Miami Herald
“A tour-de-force masterwork.” —Richmond Times-Dispatch
“Spare and beautiful. . . . A book of rare intimacy and honesty about love and grief. To read it is a privilege. To have written it is astonishing.” —The Times (London)
“Eloquent. . . . A precisely composed, often deeply moving hybrid of non-fiction, ‘fabulation,’ and straightforward reminiscence and contemplation, is a gifted writer’s response to the incomprehensible.” —The Times Literary Supplement (London)
“Profound. . . . Harrowing. . . . Anyone who has loved and lost can’t fail to be moved by this devastating book.” —The Independent (London)
“Arresting. . . . Barnes writes with astonishing precision about mourning and grief, those areas of human experience so often camouflaged with evasion and silence.” —The Daily Telegraph (London)
“High art, essential reading. It is as powerful and well-articulated as Joan Didion’s harrowing and classic discussion of losing her husband, The Year of Magical Thinking. Barnes manages to be moving precisely because he leaves so much unsaid. His silences are eloquent.” —Daily Mail
“Moving, heartfelt, exact and telling. . . . A remarkable narrative that is as raw in its emotion as it is characteristically elegant in its execution.” —The Irish Times
“At times unbearably sad, but it is also exquisite: a paean of love, and on love, and a book unexpectedly full of life. . . . In time [this] may come to be viewed as the hardest test and finest vindication of [Barnes’s] literary powers.” —The Herald (Scotland)