Levels of Life by Julian Barnes
You put together two people who have not been put together before; and sometimes the world is changed, sometimes not. They may crash and burn, or burn and crash. But sometimes, something new is made, and then the world is changed.
Julian Barnes’ slim volume, part history, part memoir, is a testament to the art of good writing. Barnes plays loose with structure – he’s written nineteen books prior to this one – to create a piece that skips from tales of Sarah Bernhardt’s charming hold over bohemian circles in Paris, to Barnes’ own grief after the death of his wife. From the offset, the reader knows they’re in safe hands with Barnes’ historically detailed anecdotes about ballooning over France and the great possibilities that heavier-than-air travel beckon. The characters feel like fiction, yet the historical details and the bustle of journalists and theatre audiences immerse the reader with an authenticity that usurps fiction. The clear intelligence and characterisation in the historical sections of the book balance glamour, romance, invention and adventure in a way that evokes the mood intended without ever over-playing its hand.
Perhaps my effusion for Barnes comes from Levels of Life being my first encounter with him. His name often pops up on my ‘to-read’ list, and its engrossing to read the work of an accomplished writer that uses every word with full awareness of its power and relationship with the reader. There’s little for Barnes to prove after such an award-winning career, the Man Booker and Somerset Maughn Award to name a few and – rather than that lead to a bloated complacency – Barnes seems comfortable enough to take the work where he wants it to go.
The quotation above is the frame repeated throughout the book. It’s the meeting of two people and how this creates change that is the loose structure of the book. The final third of the book that details Barnes’ loss of his wife (he derides the idea of referring to death as ‘loss’, but I’ll stick to its euphemistic hush rather than rejecting its literal implications as Barnes explores) and there is a clear separation between the historical whimsy of the earlier sections and the emotional wrecking ball of Barnes’ first person account of becoming a widower. We follow Barnes gauging the ways in which his friends try to handle the presence of death, which ranges from tacit understanding and support to awkwardly ignoring the situation or, exasperatingly, suggesting Barnes goes on a walking holiday. The simplicity of Barnes’ observations, about his wife’s presence, his contemplation of suicide and the day-to-day presence of grief, are emotionally devastating at times but never approach the melodrama that weaker writers would find themselves in.
This volume combines Barnes’ talent as a novelist with clear emotional intelligence that makes other works of both historical fiction and autobiography seem wanting.
REVIEWER: Jazz Croft
TITLE: Levels of Life
AUTHOR(S): Julian Barnes
PUBLISHER: Penguin Random House