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The Most Mysterious Subject

Ben A. Pruchnie/Getty Images
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 us, “took off from the Dover Gasworks on the 23rd of March 1882, and landed halfway between Dieppe and Neufchâtel.” The colonel is the sole passenger, his balloon is red and yellow, and he wears a close-fitting skullcap and picnics on two beef sandwiches and a bottle of mineral water.

The next balloonist is the exquisite Sarah Bernhardt, the legendary actress, who took off from the center of Paris four years earlier and landed near Emerainville in the department of Seine-et-Marne. She ascends not alone but with a professional balloonist and the artist Georges Clairin. Clairin painted Bernhardt for fifty years and, as his 1876 portrait of her lounging with a languid white Borzoi and an ostrich-feather fan would make clear even if Barnes did not tell us, he had been one of her lovers. The balloonists ate tartines de foie gras and oranges. Instead of mineral water there was champagne opened by the pilot “firing the cork into the sky.”

Finally, there is Félix Tournachon, who took off from the Champ de Mars in Paris in 1863. He was blown east by a gale for seventeen hours before he was able to crash-land in Hanover. Tournachon went up with eight others in a balloon called The Giant. Its basket “resembled a two-story wicker cottage, contained a refreshment room, a lavatory,” and rooms for developing photographs and printing them up into instant souvenirs. “It is not reported,” Barnes says, “what food they took with them.”

Burnaby was an “enthusiastic English amateur, happy to be mocked as a ‘balloonatic’”; Bernhardt, a celebrity making a celebrity flight; Tournachon, a professional launching a commercial venture. Burnaby lights a cigar “to help him think,” heedless of the gas escaping from the balloon. Bernhardt reports that she is drawn to ballooning because “my dreamy nature would contantly transport me to higher regions,” and later writes an account of the voyage narrated by the wicker chair on which she sat.

As for Tournachon, he is not just a balloonist. He is the brilliant portrait photographer, caricaturist, and journalist known as Nadar. Nadar was so famous in his day that “Victor Hugo once addressed an envelope with the single word ‘Nadar,’ and still the letter got to him.” A social progressive, he wrote that “the three supreme emblems of modernity were ‘photography, electricity and aeronautics.’”

The sin of height to which Barnes refers in the chapter’s title is the invasion of the heavens. “In the beginning, birds flew, and God made the birds. Angels flew, and God made the angels…. To mess with flight was to mess with God.” Ancient and Christian myths punish those who rise above themselves. But, Barnes says, the balloonists rose above the earth and did not receive punishment for their presumption. Instead, they discovered a different kind of spirituality and morality. He quotes a man named Dr. J.A.C. Charles, the first hydrogen balloonist, as saying, “‘When I felt myself escaping from the earth,…my reaction was not pleasure but happiness.’ It was ‘a moral feeling,’ he added. ‘I could hear myself living, so to speak.’”

The moral and spiritual aspect of flying, the discovery that the heavens belong to us, was perhaps what made Victor Hugo believe that aeronautics would lead to democracy. The heavens were brought down to earth, particularly after Nadar began to take photographs from the sky. But, Barnes points out, the democratization of the skies has its prosaic as well as its sublime side:

Once, the peasant had looked up at the heavens, where God lived, fearing thunder, hail, and God’s anger, hoping for sun, a rainbow, and God’s approval. Now, the modern peasant looked up at the heavens and saw instead the less daunting arrival of Colonel Fred Burnaby, cigar in one pocket and half-sovereign in the other, of Sarah Bernhardt and her autobiographical chair, of Félix Tournachon in his airborne wicker cottage, complete with refreshment room, lavatory and photography department.

The loss of this terrible grandeur, which is to say the loss of God and the acquisition of banality, is the price we pay for flying. Now when we look up, we see our own world distorted into bourgeois absurdity. But Barnes then turns from the heavens and looks back at the ground, and there he finds a different sublimity: a marriage. Nadar married an eighteen-year-old woman in 1854, a surprise to his friends but, Barnes notes, “the relationship appears to have been as tender as it was long.” Though Nadar fell out with his only brother and only son, Ernestine remained part of his life. “If there was a pattern to his life, she provided it.”

In a moving portrayal of Ernestine, Barnes quotes Edmond de Goncourt’s 1893 description of her, and Nadar, during her long decline after a stroke:

aphasiac, looking like an old white-haired professor. She is lying down, wrapped in a sky-blue dressing gown lined with pink silk. Next to her, Nadar takes the part of the tender nurse, tucking her brightly coloured gown around her, easing the hair off her temples, touching and stroking her all the time.

If this passage foreshadows the illness of Barnes’s wife, it also, to some extent, stands in for it, for it is relayed with a focus on Ernestine that Barnes does not allow himself with his own wife in her illness. “I could imagine myself taking care of her,” he writes in the final section of the book, “I could even—though I didn’t—have imagined myself, like Nadar, easing the hair from her aphasic temples, learning the part of the tender nurse….”

He never has the chance, though. From “a summer to an autumn, there was anxiety, alarm, fear, terror. It was thirty-seven days from diagnosis to death.” There is very little else said about his wife’s actual hospitalization and death, and the strict, distant prose is so swift and uncompromising that it is almost jarring. Like a sudden death. There are no personal details. Only the one fact, the most personal of all.

In “On the Level,” the next section of the book, Barnes breaks from his affectionate treatise on ballooning to tell the story of a love as powerful as Nadar’s for Ernestine, a love that carries on the metaphor of height, a love that is “uplifting”:

You put together two people who have not been put together before; and sometimes the world is changed…. Together, in that first exaltation, that first roaring sense of uplift, they are greater than their two separate selves. Together, they see further, and they see more clearly.

Barnes’s depiction of Bernhardt, her beauty, her calm, her menagerie—a cheetah, a lion, and various reptiles, including an alligator from New Orleans, “which reacted to its French diet of milk and champagne by dying. She also had a boa constrictor which ate sofa cushions and had to be shot—by Sarah herself”—is as irresistible as Bernhardt is to Captain Burnaby. Her apartment on the rue Fortuny is described as a riot of plants, parrots, and plush velvet walls. “And among such riot and display lay those simple things the heart desired: dinner, and bed, and sleep, and breakfast. A man scarcely dared ask for more. He could hear himself living.” It is the first time Burnaby has been fully in love. “He saw them as a couple, putting things together, assembling a life. He always imagined them in motion. He was—they were—soaring.”

Captain Burnaby’s fictional romance with Sarah Bernhardt is a parable about love, about its heights and depths. It does not end happily. Human beings may not be struck down by bolts of lightening for daring to ascend to the heavens, but for those daring to ascend to love, there will be a fall for one or the other of the pair. In the last section of the book, called “Loss of Depth,” Barnes leaves Burnaby and Bernhardt for the fall he has been writing toward all along. From the great height of love comes the crash to earth, to death, to grief.

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