Losing Under The Right Circumstances: Levels of Life by Julian Barnes 

Were it possible to extract grief in its purest form; should there be a hydrolysis reaction powerful enough to separate the emotional, physical and chemical matter of which it is composed, we would be left with the very essence: a quiet reflection on the emotion that overshadows a lifetime. This essence, this purified grief, can be found in Julian Barnes’ novel, Levels of Life, which is in part an historical observation of aeronautics, in part a deeply sorrowful (sorrowful because, according to Barnes, when it comes to grief, only the old words will do) memoir of his late wife, Pat Kavanagh. 

Levels of Life is organised into three sections; and it satisfies the usual Barnesian criteria: peppered with Francophiliean knowledge, observations of the past, the impulsive chasing of memory, desperation for recollection, dissections of love and the feeling of Englishness that is so prominent in Barnes’ novels. Yet even for those who have come to recognise aspects of Barnes through his prose – be it through the adolescent vision of Metroland, the choice between morality and memory mapped out by Talking It Over (rediscovered in the sequel Love Etc) and even later in The Sense of an Ending – the evocatively nostalgic reflection of a school friend’s suicide – there is something of a previously unknown Barnes revealed within Levels of Life. For the first time, Julian Barnes is not the architect of his characters’ misfortunes, waiting apprehensively on the periphery for the impact to unfurl. He has instead decided to become his own protagonist; venturing into the depths of his own life, and his own loss. 

The first segment of the novel begins with ascension: it is aptly titled “The Sin of Height.” The principle of the novel – although the reader is not as yet aware – is introduced in the first line. “You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed.” Later, Barnes will lament about unknown passengers on public transport, and their obliviousness to his wife’s death: “don’t they know that the world has changed?” But this is not Barnes’s story. For the moment, he selflessly – is it selfless? – steps into the shadows, understanding what the reader has yet to learn: it is quite impossible to comprehend the depths if one has not experienced the height. 

This story – the sin of height – belongs to Fred Burnaby, to Sarah Bernhardt and to Félix Tournachon. These three separate stories are bound to each other by the destiny of height. Fred Burnaby, an English Colonel, embarked on a flight in a hot air balloon from Dover to Dieppe on the 23rd March 1882. Sarah Berhardt, a French actress, had previously used the same mode of transport to journey from Paris to Seine et Marne, whilst Félix Tournachon, a professional aeronautic, left the Champ de Mars in 1863, whereupon an Easterly wind left him in Hanover. The first link between an English amateur, a famous French actress and a professional balloonist is the desire for flight. Later, other links follow. Tournachon, the red haired friend of Baudelaire and Victor Hugo, photographed the actress Sarah Bernhardt, thus, as Barnes later writes, he pushes together “two emblems of modernity – photography and aeronautics.” Later, Tournachon (who adopts the name ‘Nadar’) is described as an “uxorious” man, a word which Barnes later uses when talking about himself. These links are not accidental, as Barnes is not, and has never been, in the habit of writing accidental prose. Some connections are ambiguous – in the way of Woolf’s The Waves – and the significance of aeronautics in Levels of Life is perhaps only understood when Barnes compares living a life of solitude happily to “trying to lift an implausible contraption off the ground.” Height’s only sin, the reader realises, is that it makes people believe that they are immune to falling. 

Levels of Life’s second section – On the Level – finds Barnes at his most familiar between two strikingly different styles. He returns to what is surely one of his favourite themes – love – in a narrative that witnesses the crossing of the lives of two of those who were involved in the 19th century aeronautics movement: Sarah Bernhardt, the extravagant, exotic, bohemian French actress who unashamedly slept with all of her leading men, and Fred Burnaby, “often described as bohemian”, and who had, since travelling to Asia Minor and Russia, known the “exoticism which Bernhardt merely appropriated.” For Barnes’ claims that “love may not always be evenly matched – perhaps it rarely is”, Burnaby and Bernhardt appear to be just that. This is a love story with hints of tumult among the glamour, tumult that leads to the final of the chapter of the three; for which the reader has unknowingly, or knowingly, been waiting. “We live on the flat, on the level, and yet – and so – we aspire”, writes Barnes, knowing of the reminiscence in his own story “when my life was on the level.” Carefully noted is Burnaby’s dismissal of the “cork life jackets” worn by balloonists in case of sudden descent into the sea. “I’ll take my chances,” he says, a statement with which Barnes morosely agrees: “there are no soft landings.” 

Some believe that Barnes over-emphasises the balloon metaphor, and perhaps a case could be made for their belief. However, as I previously stated, Barnes is not, and never has been, a writer of accidental prose. The height was necessary to understand the depths, and the depths were necessary to understand the level: the level at which life should be lived for happiness to be achieved. Unlike Goethe’s Elective Affinities, which perhaps relies too much on a Chemistry metaphor revealed too early, the fluctuation between grasping the heights and probing the depths in Levels of Life is representative of the uncertainty of grief, and entirely necessary for the essence of the emotion. 

Josephine Hart, best known for Damage, but who wrote a plethora of novels which captured the crookedness of the human form with startling accuracy, once remarked that pain “demands to be felt.” In the third and final chapter of Levels of Life, called The Loss of Depth, it appears that it is Barnes who demands to feel the pain, not vice versa. What begins with a mathematical conception of grief – what is taken away is greater than the sum of what was there, and this is not mathematically possible, but it is emotionally possible – dips quickly, and unapologetically into autobiographical narrative. Details are withheld; a fervent yet understandable grasp for privacy, one feels – and the events are related in quick succession. Barnes and his wife were married for thirty years, “I was thirty two when we met and sixty two when she died.” There was also a period of “thirty seven days from diagnosis to death.” These facts are delivered brutally, clinically, with Barnes lacking consideration for the reader’s shock when he can barely register his own. It does not take much research to discover that Julian Barnes was married to Pat Kavanagh, who died of a particularly aggressive brain tumour. Standing alone, these facts seem insignificant. Levels of Life has never been a question of to whom Barnes was married, but of the way that her death shaped (and eroded) his writing, in this novel and the others written after 2008. Longtime readers will, with some unpleasantly chilling surprise, discover that the inspiration for the suicide of Adrian Finn in The Sense of An Ending was drawn from Barnes himself: “I knew soon enough my preferred method – a hot bath, a glass of wine next to the taps, and an exceptionally sharp Japanese carving knife.” 

The Loss of Depth stands alone in the novel, and can be read and understood without The Sin of Height and On the Level to preface it, aside from a few references to Nadar and Sarah Bernhardt, yet the section’s prose is so searingly personal that you’ll want to look away, feeling uncomfortable as it seems such an invasion. This is not Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, nor Hart’s Oblivion: there is no religious element, no presence of the supernatural. Barnes states, in a sentence so truly dreadful to comprehend, that he believes he will never again be reunited with his wife. How then, does he live on? Barnes speaks to his wife every day, “you marry to continue the conversation. Why let death interrupt it?” He also becomes acquainted with opera, revealing his thoughts on the scene in Orpheus and Eurydice when Orpheus goes against his promise and looks back at Eurydice – you lose the world for a glance? Of course you do. That’s what the world is for: to lose under the right circumstances.” 

If Levels of Life could be described in one word, which it cannot, as it is not feasible to condense a novel in such a way, the word would be unapologetic. In The Sin of Height, Barnes is unapologetically knowledgeable, describing even the most obscure of Historical events. He is unapologetically romantic in On The Level, acting once again as the master of memory and love, orchestrating a doomed affair between a mismatched couple. In The Loss of Depth, Barnes is simply unapologetic: about grief, what he has lost, what he shall never regain, about ending friendships with those who fail to understand his fragile situation. Barnes is as honest with himself as he is with his many unfortunate protagonists, and perhaps that is the best thing about this wonderful novel: Levels of Life gives us a glimpse into the mind of a man who has really lost, but who has lost under the right circumstances.