Levels of Life – Julian Barnes

I read this book a while ago, during my summer vacation in Portugal. It is a short book, you could consider it a long essay, but in just over a 100 pages it packs a punch. It unapologetically goes after our emotions, hitting exactly where it hurts the most, or where we’re scared it would hurt the most.

It starts innocently enough, with a brief history of ballooning; meditating the human’s dream of soaring up the skies. Barnes considers the consequences of that achievement: would it free us from the burden of earthly sins, or would we actually drag them into the sky with us. For a while he focuses on Nadar, the person that combined two signs of modernity that have never been combined before – photography and aeronautics, giving us a completely new perspective on the world and our lives. We take this perspective for granted now, but it is actually quite recent that we’re able to see the world this way.

Barnes also meditates about love, considering what can happen if you put two people together, what new things may happen, what’s the potential and the threat. He considers how love can elevate us, but also how it may not happen to everyone. From here he unexpectedly and swiftly punches us in the gut, jumping straight into his grief after his wife died. You can clearly see how the book is divided into three parts, first describing physical elevation, second focusing on the uplifting power of love and the third bringing us crashing down, when we lose what is most important.

Barnes analyzes his grief, tries to understand what happened, but also to find a way forward, is it through remembering or through letting go? Is there even a way forward after such a disaster? The book is not completely dissimilar to Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking in its premise, of a writer trying to make sense of grief through writing. The books are as different as everyone’s grief is different, but also as similar as grief in itself is similar every time. Barnes’ grief is raw, painful and unforgiving. It hurts to read about it.

It also does another thing to us: it wakes compassion and empathy. We all were or will be in this situation and we are all dreading it… the most terrible of losses and there is nothing we can do about it. There is nothing that will make it bearable, there is no way to prepare. This book is a warning, all those that know love will soar, but we’re also all doomed to crash at some point and then we’ll have to pick up the pieces.

It was a sad and scary book to read, but a brilliant one. Finally, after the three previous chances, I gave to Barnes’ books I’ve been swept away.

England, England review

Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art review

One thought on “Levels of Life – Julian Barnes

  1. Pingback: Best books of 2018 and plans for 2019 – bookskeptic.com

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