Book Review: Levels Of Life

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British writer Julian Barnes. Photo / Supplied
British writer Julian Barnes. Photo / Supplied

Levels Of Life by Julian Barnes
(Jonathan Cape $29.99)

Some natures are drawn to hazard: to explore the familiar from a vertiginously different perspective. The rewards can be high, but so can the risks. Julian Barnes' new book brings together Nadar, the 19th century inventor and photographer, the actress Sarah Bernhardt, Colonel Fred Burnaby - the strongest man in the British Army - and balloons, in a luminous meditation on love and grief.

The book is set in three sections: The Sin of Height, On the Level and The Loss of Depth. The opening paragraph establishes a theme: "You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed. People may not notice at the time, but that doesn't matter. The world has been changed nonetheless."

Bernhardt, Burnaby and Nadar have a singular connection: all were captivated by ballooning. Nadar, the innovator, took the first aerial photographs from a balloon with a darkroom. Colonel Fred made a cross-Channel balloon flight in 1882, equipped with beef sandwiches and cigars. Four years earlier, Bernhardt had ascended, perched on a straw-seated chair.

She later published an account, written from the chair's point of view.

There is something intrepid and fragile about these characters. In the second part of his book, Barnes describes a brief love affair between Bernhardt and Burnaby, who saw them "as a couple, putting things together, assembling a life. He always imagined them in motion. He was - they were - soaring."

The third section is a contemplation of the death of love. The love in this case was Barnes' wife, Pat Kavanagh, who died in 2008, and to whom this book, like its predecessors, is dedicated. "We were together for 30 years," he writes. "The heart of my life, the life of my heart ... It was 37 days from diagnosis to death. I tried never to look away, always to face it; and a kind of crazy lucidity resulted."

Barnes anatomises structures of grief: the anguished indifference to a world that did not contain his wife; his bewildered anger with friends who refused to acknowledge her name when he mentioned it; the thoughts of suicide, the reconfiguring of time and space by loss.

These experiences are both universal and individual. The loss of love is the loss of a language: of "shared vocabulary, of tropes, teases, shortcuts, in-jokes, sillinesses, faux rebukes, amatory footnotes - all obscure references rich in memory but valueless if explained to an outsider".

The private language of love doesn't generally translate; yet Barnes vividly invokes the power and delicacy of what is lost to him.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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