I was first introduced to Julian Barnes when I read "Sense of an Ending" and I absolutely loved the book. So, I had no doubt that Levels of Life will also be an amazing experience as well. This essay about photography, ballooning, love, life and loss in Barnes unique style, will hook you to it. The book is divided into three chapters and each one looks at a different level of life.
The first chapter :Sin of Heights" talks of three different people : An English Colonel Fred Burnaby, the bohemian French actress Sarah Bernhardt and the balloonist and photographer Nadar. All three of them have a common passion for ballooning. Here Barnes uses the metaphor of ballooning and photography to describe the thrill of flight, of conquering God's territory. As every love story is potentially a grief story, every balloon expedition can potentially be a disaster, but it also can lead to adventure and freedom. And if you can combine ballooning with photography - the world is changed.
“You put together two things that have not been put together before And the world is changed"
The second chapter "On the Level" is where we see Sarah and Fred together. They have a lot in common, their bohemian way of living and their passion for ballooning, but when Fred falls in love with Sarah and proposes to marry her, she refuses. Engrossed in her own life, Sarah chooses to float in the air like a balloon than come down on earth and have a settled life. This chapter is a midway between the highs of chapter one and lows of chapter three.
"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".
The last chapter, "Loss of Depth" is where we come face to face with the searingly painstaking memoir of Barnes. In this chapter he talks of the death of his wife Pat Kavanagh and the grief and mourning that follows. From being angry towards people who carefully avoids talking about her, and also towards people who talks about her, to contemplating suicide, Barnes takes us through his plethora of emotions and his constant attempt to cope with it. How he imagines her all the time and is in constant conversation with her, is something we can all relate to.
Even thought we have a huge range of literature talking of love and loss of love, we all find ourselves at loss of words while describing grief our struggles to deal with it. In this book, Barnes pens down these emotions with such simplicity and authenticity that you cannot help but find yourself soaking in this heartbreaking experience.
"It hurts exactly as much as it is worth, so in a way one relishes the pain, I think".