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Julian Barnes 'Levels' With Us On Love, Loss And Ballooning

Julian Barnes is also the author of <em>The Sense of an Ending,</em> which won the Man Booker Prize in 2011.
Alan Edwards / Knopf
Julian Barnes is also the author of The Sense of an Ending, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2011.

"Every love story is a potential grief story," Julian Barnes writes in Levels of Life, a quirky but ultimately powerful meditation on things that uplift us — literally, as in hot air balloons, and emotionally, as in love — and things that bring us crashing to earth: to wit, that great leveler, the death of a loved one.

In this slim, tripartite book, Barnes tenuously attempts to juxtapose several disparate subjects: 19th century French portrait photographer Nadar, who first succeeded in photographing the earth from above, allowing us "to look at ourselves from afar, to make the subjective suddenly objective"; Fred Burnaby, a "balloonatic" officer in the British Royal Horse Guards willing to risk soaring across the English Channel without a cork vest, but nearly sunk when spurned in his ardent attempt to marry Sarah Bernhardt; and Barnes' own flattening grief after the sudden death of his wife, literary agent Pat Kavanagh, from a brain tumor in 2008.

The tricky synthesis Barnes is after doesn't quite come off. We read the opening nonfiction section, "The Sin of Height," and the quasi-fictional "On the Level," intrigued but somewhat baffled by his fascination with 19th century aeronautics and weighted down by his belabored extended metaphors of soaring and crashing. "You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed," he begins, later adding what could serve as commentary on this book: "Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't."

Yet Levels of Life takes flight with its third, autobiographical section, "The Loss of Depth." After a vigil that lasted just "thirty-seven days from diagnosis to death," Barnes crash-landed into widowerhood. Normally so crisp and circumspect, Barnes writes movingly, "We were together for thirty years. I was thirty-two when we met, sixty-two when she died. The heart of my life; the life of my heart." What was taken away, he insists, was "greater than the sum of what was there. This may not be mathematically possible; but it is emotionally possible."

He scrutinizes the down-to-earth landscape of grief, from "the Desert of Loss" to the "Bog of Self-Pity," and rails at the thoughtless things people say, such as advice to get a dog. But although probing deeply personal emotions, this is no confessional. Barnes avoids particulars, neither mentioning his wife's name nor sharing all the "last things" he tells us he remembers so clearly: "the last book she read," "her last spoken word." In doing so, his book's focus becomes his grief rather than his wife, "her-lessness" rather than her.

Barnes' preoccupation with mortality predates this loss. In his 2008 memoir, Nothing to Be Frightened Of, written before her diagnosis, he discussed his fear of end-of-life oblivion — the nothingness after death — and commented that death is "the one appalling fact which defines life; unless you are constantly aware of it, you cannot begin to understand what life is about." He also broached the subject of grief in his short story "Marriage Lines," from his 2011 collection, Pulse, about a widower returning alone to a formerly happy vacation spot.

Among the many trenchant questions Barnes poses in Levels of Life is what constitutes success in mourning: "Does it lie in remembering or in forgetting?" He contemplates suicide, but is stayed by the realization that his wife lives through his memories. Yet, "You ask yourself: what happiness is there in just the memory of happiness?"

Most of all, he misses the sharing and tries to keep up his end of their running conversation. "This is what those who haven't crossed the tropic of grief often fail to understand: the fact that someone is dead may mean that they are not alive, but doesn't mean that they do not exist," he writes. But with "no echo coming back," "everything you do, or might achieve thereafter, is thinner, weaker, matters less" — including, presumably, his 2011 Booker Prize for his elegant most recent novel, The Sense of an Ending.

Although Barnes contends, after E.M. Forster, that one grief "throws no light upon another," there is solace aplenty in reading of others' emotional struggles and resilience. For its unsparing contemplation of grief, Levels of Life merits a place beside C.S. Lewis' A Grief Observed, Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, Calvin Trillin's About Alice, John Bayley's Elegy for Iris, Joyce Carol Oates' A Widow's Story and Donald Hall's Without on the growing shelf of literature about spousal bereavement.

"Sorrow is a kind of rust of the soul," Barnes quotes Samuel Johnson. Levels of Life boldly and beautifully buffs the corrosion.

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Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.