‘Levels of Life’ by Julian Barnes is (I think) the only book I have reviewed on this blog which I have tagged as both fiction and non-fiction. Part essay, part fiction and part memoir, the book certainly defies simple categorisation despite being less than 120 pages long.
The book is split into three parts. The first part, ‘The Sin of Height’ is a brief history of the early pioneers of ballooning in the 19th century, re-visiting a familiar theme in Barnes’s work of Anglo-French relations. The second part, ‘On The Level’, is a fictionalised account of a love affair between the French actress Sarah Bernhardt and one of the aforementioned ballooning pioneers, Colonel Fred Burnaby, The third part, ‘The Loss of Depth’ describes Barnes’s own journey through stages of grief following the death of his wife of thirty years, Pat Kavanagh, in 2008 just a few weeks after she was diagnosed with a brain tumour.
The seemingly random and disjointed nature of these respective parts is reminiscent of one of Barnes’s earliest works, ‘A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters‘. The up and down ballooning and flight metaphors of the first two parts lead on nicely to Barnes’s memoir which, unsurprisingly, is the part that really defines ‘Levels of Life’ as a work. It is easily the most powerful and, of course, the most personal section. Barnes outlines with searingly raw honesty how he considered committing suicide should his grief become even more unbearable and the tactless comments and inappropriate advice offered by several unnamed acquaintances is also dwelt upon.
I am a huge fan of Barnes’s writing which is as subtle as ever with painfully accurate observations about human nature. However, I thought that the first two sections were a bit like extended prologues leading towards the “real” subject of the book, namely Barnes’s own experience of grief which has garnered much attention from other critics. On the other hand, I couldn’t really imagine Barnes writing a conventional memoir so while the structure of the book is odd, it also seems very appropriate at the same time. Overall, ‘Levels of Life’ certainly deserves to be read in its entirety but it is the final section which really makes this book memorable.