The Most Mysterious Subject

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Julian Barnes, London, September 2013

Julian Barnes was married for thirty years to a woman he loved, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh. Levels of Life is an examination of the void she left behind when she died in 2008. The book is short, crisp, measured, and deeply felt. Not a grief memoir so much as a grief meditation, it is divided into three improbable parts: an appealing discussion of ballooning; a touching short story about the fictional romance of a real English adventurer named Fred Burnaby and the celebrated actress Sarah Bernhardt; and a thoughtful consideration of grief. In The Sense of an Ending, his novel that won the Man Booker Prize in 2011, Barnes’s celebrated literary playfulness and skill sometimes came off almost as affectation. The artifice in the new book, in contrast, is essential. Levels of Life is a far stranger and more original work.

It is, not surprisingly, a marvel of flickering Barnesian leitmotifs, none of them subtle, all of them subtly and unexpectedly intertwined. Barnes’s language is even more disciplined than usual. He has managed to tenderly expose the grief of mourning in all its naked, writhing confusion, without exposing himself, something of a miracle of restraint.

Barnes shuns sentimentality with obvious disgust and insists on the privacy and dignity of his wife’s life and death even as he lets us know she is central to every word of this book. “I look at my key ring (which used to be hers): it holds only two keys, one to the front door of the house and one to the back gate of the cemetery.” This is not a book that an American would be likely to write. It is both too direct and too indirect. It is direct in its language and indirect in everything else.

Barnes begins with the observation that “you put two things together that have not been put together before. And the world is changed.” The reversal of that sentiment, that those two things will be separated and the world will disintegrate, is implicit, but there is a great deal of pleasure ahead before we reach that wrenching separation. The first section is called “The Sin of Height,” and it is about the way the world was changed in the nineteenth century. The change is here reflected not in descriptions of the industrial revolution, capitalism, Impressionism, or any other of the political or economic or artistic developments we might expect. Instead, Barnes gives us a concise and wonderful essay on ballooning. Dramatic, meditative, adorned with unexpected detail, Barnes’s story of ballooning transforms a fusty Victorian pursuit into an imperative of glamour, valor, and modernity.

He presents three members of the “balloon-going classes of the day.” First, mustachioed Colonel Fred Burnaby of the Royal Horse Guards, an adventurer and a member of the Council of the Aeronautical Society when aeronautics meant riding in a wicker basket beneath a giant gaudy balloon. Burnaby, he tells …

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