Grief and ballooning: on Barnes’ Levels of Life

I first became a fan of Julian Barnes when I read Flaubert’s Parrot back in 1984. His latest book has a touch of Francophilia, and there’s a parrot mentioned once, but otherwise, it’s a long way from the playful, meta-fiction of his early novels. Levels of Life is a hybrid book: part fiction, part mini-biography and part memoir. The first section, ‘The Sin of Height’, tells the stories of the some of the early balloonists, including their attempts to take photographs from the air. The second section, ‘On the Level’, elaborates a fictional love affair between balloonist Fred Burnaby and actress Sarah Bernhardt. The final part is ‘The Loss of Depth’, where Barnes plummets to earth and autobiography.

The first two parts, while nicely written and enjoyable to read, are really just providing an extended metaphor and ballast (pun intended) for the third part, which might best be described as a grief memoir. Here is the driving force for the book, the need to write about and, presumably, share the experience of losing Pat, his beloved wife of 30 years, to a sudden illness.

This is a grief memoir more in the pattern of CS Lewis’ A Grief Observed than in the style of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (to take two of the most well-known and excellent examples of such books). It is philosophical and abstract, almost impersonal in its telling. Not that Barnes avoids revealing aspects of himself and his life – quite the reverse – but he seems to do so to explore grief and how it works rather than to create empathy with the reader or show us the details of his daily life. He describes the way friends stop talking about Pat and instead suggest he starts taking holidays and how that affects him. He discusses his thoughts of suicide, why he now values opera (all that drama and pain), how he has managed to get through the past four years. This section of the book is honest and illuminating and its references to the balloon metaphor give it variety and lighter moments. Mercifully, there is no advice on grief-work, no suggestions that there is a map for grieving, only one man’s reflections on ‘the universe doing its stuff’.

A final touching moment is seeing the inside back flap of the book jacket with the author’s photo and biography and, then, just below that, his wife’s photo and biography. It is as if Pat Kavanagh were ghost-writing the book with Barnes, a spectral co-author of his grief book, as she had been a partner in his life.

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