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Saturday, 25 May 2013

Book review: Levels of Life, Julian Barnes (2013)

I guess you can't be good at everything, which is something that this book, a triptych, seems to prove, because clearly Barnes fails when it comes to dealing with his wife's death. He hadn't properly prepared himself during his life for such a cataclysmic event, it's clear. His cogitations on grief are in the third part of the book and they're as dry, angered and unstructured as the appalling 2011 book by Joan Didion, Blue Nights, about the death of her daughter. This chapter of Barnes' odd book start with acid and ends with a flump, with the word "France" suggesting - only to the observant reader, of course - that they should refer to the earlier parts of the book for information about how he feels about his apparently beloved wife.

The first part, on ballooning, starts out like a Wikipedia entry it is so dry and factual. It gets better, though, when Barnes begins to talk about the moral, aesthetic and philosophical connotations of human flight, from which he segues to a portrait of an early aeronaut and photographer named Felix Tournachon (who also went by the professional name of Nadar). Nadar was, like Barnes, uxorious. Barnes celebrates the way the man's enthusiasms resulted in new ways of seeing humanity: photographs taken from a balloon give us a view of ourselves that is otherwise simply unavailable. But none of the observant niceness involved in creating this portrait of this odd man survives once Barnes starts talking about his own problems.

The second part of the book is a piece of historical fiction recounting a romance between the famous English actress Sarah Bernhardt and a solider named Fred Burnaby, who was also a balloonist. The gallant and self-consciously bohemian Burnaby captivates the actress temporarily, but when she calls it off he takes it badly. The measure of his foolishness is betrayed in the fact that he cannot bring himself to consider himself her friend, and not a lover, once the penny drops. He marries someone else. She stays the same. It has to be asked if Barnes desires to level at himself the same charge of foolishness that Burnaby invites. Probably not.

This is a small and strange book. It is thankfully short, although the Burnaby chapter dragged on a bit long for me. Barnes probably needn't have bothered with this volume at all. He no doubt considers his relationship with his wife a private matter, not for public eyes. Instead of telling us about her he has parsimoniously stolen the march on our curiosity, opted to wallow in authorial vanity - "Who the hell do you think you are asking impertinent questions about my wife?" - and merely indulged in a quantity of public complaint in addition to an amount of intensive study about the age of steampunk aeronautics. I, for one, do not need to know anything more about ballooning!

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