Synopses & Reviews
Fifteen months after the publication of his phenomenally successful novel The Sense of an Ending
, Julian Barnes now gives us his most powerfully moving book yet, beginning in the nineteenth century and leading seamlessly into an entirely personal account of loss — making Levels of Life an immediate classic on the subject of grief.
"You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed..." Julian Barnes's new book is about ballooning, photography, love and grief; about putting two things, and two people, together, and about tearing them apart. One of the judges who awarded him the 2011 Man Booker Prize described him as "an unparalleled magus of the heart." This book confirms that opinion.
"British novelist Barnes (The Sense of an Ending) offers a delicately oblique, emotionally tricky geography of grief, which he has constructed from his experience since the sudden death in 2008 of his beloved wife of 30 years, literary agent Pat Kavanagh. The 'levels' of the title a high, even, and deep 'moral space' play out in the juxtaposition of two subjects that are seemingly incongruous but potentially marvelous and sublime together, as Barnes delineates through his requisite and always fascinating historical examples: the 19th-century French photographer Nadar's attempts to unite the evolving science of aeronautics ('the sin of height') with the art of photography for the first astounding aerial views of Earth; and English traveler and avid balloonist Colonel Fred Burnaby's passion for the bold, adventurist French actress Sarah Bernhardt. The shocking death of Barnes's wife left him feeling flattened and suicidal. In his grieving turmoil, he questions assumptions about death and mourning, loss and memory, and he grapples eloquently with the ultimate moral conundrum: how to live? (Sept.)" Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
“An unforgettable book….Visceral, exquisitely crafted, thoughtful and heartbreaking.” Ellan Allfrey, NPR Best Books of the Year
“Deeply stirring....The metaphoric intensity of what has come before gives Barnes's account of his grief a fierce and fiery kind of momentum.” The Boston Globe
“Searching, angry, plangent and beautiful....Only a writer of Barnes's stature could sublimate personal pain into something artistically exquisite.” Minneapolis Star Tribune
“A moving tribute to a love and lifelong partner, an examination of grief that personalizes universal emotion effortlessly and beautifully.” New York Daily News
“Barnes has distilled his grief—refined and compacted it—and the result is a powerful dirge and slender but shapely work of art.” The Daily Beast
“As eloquent as it is soul-shuddering....A book about the death of a spouse that is unlike any other — book or spouse — and thus illuminates the singularity as well as the commonality of grieving.” Kirkus (starred review)
You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed . . .”
Julian Barnes’s new book is about ballooning, photography, love and grief; about putting two things, and two people, together, and about tearing them apart. One of the judges who awarded him the 2011 Man Booker Prize described him as “an unparalleled magus of the heart.” This book confirms that opinion.
“A remarkable narrative that is as raw in its emotion as it is characteristically elegant in its execution.” —Eileen Battersby, The Irish Times
About the Author
Julian Barnes is the author of eleven novels, three books of short stories, and three collections of journalism. In addition to the Man Booker Prize, his other honors include the Somerset Maugham Award, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, and the E. M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in London.
Reading Group Guide
1. Julian Barnes begins the book with a striking assertion: “You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed” [p. 3]. How are the seemingly disparate concerns of Levels of Life—
love and grief, ballooning and photography, height and depth—brought together? In what ways are these themes connected? In what ways is the book itself an unprecedented act of joining, even as it is about loss and separation?
2. What is the effect of placing his essay on grief after the section on the history of balloon flight and aerial photography, and the fictionalized account of the love affair between Fred Burnaby and Sarah Bernhardt? Would the final section have been less affecting if Barnes had published it as a stand-alone piece?
3. Why does Barnes come to love opera—an art form he had formerly despised as overly dramatic—after his wife dies? What is it about opera that elicits such a powerful emotional response form him? Why does he call it his “new social realism” [p. 100]?
4. Discuss the implications of Barnes’s remarkable assertion that we seek out love, in spite its potential for grief, because “love is the meeting point between truth and magic. Truth, as in photography; magic, as in ballooning” [p. 39]. Why should the joining of truth and magic be so potent?
5. What did balloon flight represent to its first proponents, the “balloonatics”? What kind of freedom did it offer them? Why did some people feel that it in fact constituted a kind of hubris?
6. Why does Barnes assert that “we are bad at dealing with death, that banal, unique thing; we can no longer make it part of a wider pattern” [p. 75]? Why is this the case? What shared patterns, beliefs, and myths have we lost that might allow us to experience death in more meaningful ways?
7. What is Barnes suggesting when he writes that “the fact that someone is dead may mean that they are not alive, but doesn't mean that they do not exist”? [p. 111].
8. Why does Barnes object so strongly to euphemisms like “passed” and “lost to cancer”? How does he react to the well-meaning and largely conventional consolation offered by friends—that he should get away for a while, or meet someone new, or that surviving grief will make him stronger?
9. Bewildered by his grief, Barnes asks: “What is ‘success’ in mourning? Does it lie in remembering or in forgetting? A staying still or a moving on? Or some combination of both? The ability to hold the lost love powerfully in mind, remembering without distorting? The ability to continue living as she would have wanted you to . . . ? And afterwards? What happens to the heart—what does it need, and seek?” [p. 122]. How might these questions be answered?
10. Compared to most memoirists, Barnes is remarkably restrained about his wife, never mentioning her name or the cause of her death. Why might have he have made this choice? What is the effect of focusing so intensely on the experience and meaning of his grief rather than its source?
11. How does Barnes argue himself out of suicide? How does he justify continuing to talk to his wife after she dies? In what ways is his thinking on these questions both exceptional and perfectly logical?
12. Barnes gives readers an extraordinarily nuanced and searching meditation on grief. What are some of the most remarkable insights he offers in Levels of Life?