Levels of Life by Julian Barnes Knopf (2013) 128 pp
I’ve been a fan of Julian Barnes for years. I was among those who cheered when he won the Man Booker Prize a few years ago for The Sense of an Ending (my thoughts here). That book got a lot of criticism for being too cold, too convoluted, too pretentious. I didn’t feel that way and still don’t; it was elegant and provocative. However, his new treatise on grief — “Every love story is a potential grief story” — Levels of Life (2013) struck me as slight, trite, and even condescending.
To start with the genuinely good and admirable, the book is Barnes’ attempt to approach the death of his wife, Pat Kavanagh, in 2008. It’s touching and personal, and it seems wrong to criticize the book. Nevertheless, the personal reflection — which doesn’t need to be given to the general public (I can’t imagine putting this out there does anything for those who knew Kavanagh, and it’s not a new perspective on mortality and grief for those, like me, who didn’t) — makes the remainder of the book feel even more trite.
The book is composed of three parts. In the first, Barnes examines the dawn of ballooning, man’s attempt to lift up into the skies, something invigorating and — yes, we see it coming for miles — hubristic. Where once people looked up and could see only God’s domain, now one can look up to see someone crash landing.
Besides giving Barnes an opportunity to speak about the hubris of rising to such heights, ballooning also allows him to examine how such heights allow for a change in perspective.
You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed.
At first, it’s man and sky that creates a new world. Then we combine ballooning and photography. These new perspectives create what Barnes calls “psychic shock.”
The next part deals with a bit of psychic shock. In this part, Barnes moves from ballooning and the general metaphor to a more specific example of putting two humans together for the first time and the new perspectives — and potential for a crash landing — such a combination brings.
My problem with the two first parts is that Barnes is so heavy with his metaphor, the stories themselves don’t come alive. It’s practically an understatement to say that each page is peppered with aphorisms, and they don’t say much:
Groundlings, we can sometimes reach as far as the gods. Some soar with art, others with religion; most with love. But when we soar, we can also crash. There are few soft landings.
These aphorisms, along with the style that forces each thought at us in direct punches, suggest an attempt to be clever rather than honest.
For me, these two failed parts that take up the majority of this book couch the last part — the part dealing with Barnes’ personal grief and personal story — in writerly self-indulgence rather than personal indulgence. And that’s unfair. Taken on its own, the third part is moving.
Barnes was obviously trying to put some things together to create something new. As he says in the book, “Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.” For me, Levels of Life doesn’t work.