A meditation on love and grief, on soaring in hot air balloons and crashing into the Earth, Julian Barnes’ Levels of Life is a memoir occasioned by the death of his wife. But unlike the recent memoirs by Joan Didion and Joyce Carol Oates on the experience of their own bereavements, Barnes waited five years to craft this book, which is marked by a sense of perspective on the tragedy of loss.

Beautifully reticent with personal detail, Levels of Life opens from the outlook of a Victorian hot air balloon. The stories of three pioneering aeronauts—Fred Burnaby, Sarah Bernhardt and FĂ©lix Tournachon—offer a literally distanced view of humanity. These aeronauts were among the first people to look down at the Earth from the airy freedom of the sky. But that freedom comes at the cost of the inherent dangers of crashing and burning.

Which brings us to the love stories of the aeronauts. Burnaby loved Bernhardt, declared his love, and was wounded by her rejection. Tournachon was uxorious (an important word for Barnes): in love with his wife for the 55 years of their marriage until the day she died. We aspire to love like we aspire to the heights, but “every love story is a potential grief story,” says Barnes.

The memoir’s third section takes us to Barnes’ own grief story, when 30 years of love are ripped away in an instant by brain cancer. There were only 37 days, Barnes tells us, from his wife’s diagnosis to her death, and the loss forever of her “radiant curiosity.” This is about the only personal detail Barnes tells us, preferring to muse instead upon bigger questions: love, grief, anger, mourning and loneliness—“just the universe doing its stuff, and we are the stuff it is being done to.”

Levels of Life tells a universal story, a patterning of human existence best seen from the air. Julian Barnes is at his best in this subtle and intelligent memoir, even as it narrates the worst.

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