Book Review: Levels of Life by Julian Barnes


Levels of Life by Julian Barnes is a book of three parts. The first is about a hot air balloonist and photography, the second about an ill-fated love affair and the third is a story about grief. It’s a small, powerful book and I loved it.

The first chapter, focused mainly on hot air ballooning, is called The Sin of Height. I must admit it didn’t instantly draw me in. Hot air ballooning is not a subject I’m interested in, but his beautiful writing kept me reading.

In the section chapter- On the Level- we learn about the love affair between Colonel Fred Burnaby and Sarah Bernhardt. Burnaby was a Soldier, an Adventurer and a self proclaimed Bohemian. Bernhardt was a free spirited, intelligent Actress. Their paths crossed and what followed was a love affair. Barnes delves into the complicated affair in which feelings were not felt in equal measures on both sides and where one party was left grieving.

I found the final chapter, The Loss of Depth, the most moving. More than just a chapter, it’s a personal essay on Barnes’ own experience of grief: the death of his wife.

Reading about another person’s grieving process feels like an immensely private and intimate thing and in that alone it is moving. Yet the simplicity with which Barnes writes and his lack of sentimentally makes his words and recollections all the more impactful.

His reflections on his days without her, his loneliness, the tenderness he shows for her brought me to tears on more than one occasion.

It also made me reflect. I reflected on my love but I also thought about what I give mental priority to in life, all of those things that I let derail me and define me. I wondered if some of these things really matter at all.

Throughout the book his words are simple, yet elegant. The themes of love, loss and grief weave their way through the book, connecting the seemingly unconnected subjects. I found myself re-reading certain sentences and wanting to inhale whole passages. One of which I will leave you with:

Every love story is a potential grief story. If not at first, then later. If not for one, then for the other. Sometimes, for both.

So why do we constantly aspire to love? Because love is the meeting point of truth and magic. Truth as in photography; magic, as in ballooning. 

The more I read of Julian Barnes work, the more I want to read. So if anyone has any recommendations then please let me know.



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