High-Minded Or Hot Air?

At times in Levels of Life, Julian Barnes at his dizzying best—it is writing from his informed, proud and devoted heart

Books Literature

Julian Barnes: He has written a magestic three-part book

Julian Barnes has written a book about death. Well, death and life. Death, and life, and love. Death, life, love, and hot air ballooning. Yes, this last seems incongruous; but such is the mastery of his voice that he persuades the reader of the vertigo of all the central life-experiences. It’s not called “falling in love” for nothing — and while Barnes is too subtle an examiner to make this point, his little exposition, though hardly uplifting, is concerned with height and depth. 

The middle section, and the most enjoyable bit, of this slight but mesmeric book concerns the 1870s love affair between a French actress, the celebrated Sarah Bernhardt, and an English captain, Fred Burnaby. Now it’s perfectly obvious what’s going to happen when a poor old Englishman falls for an exotic beauty. And Bernhardt is more than just French — she’s Jewish, for one thing, Slavic for another; and as if that wasn’t enough she’s an actress, too. “She seems to embody truthfulness, theatricality and mystery,” is all the warning siren we need: she’s a heartbreaker, perhaps not in the vein of Lizzie Eustace but it would not be an exaggeration to say she’s built along the same lines as Madame de Merteuil. “[I am] so thin,” she simpers, more than once, “that I can slip between rain drops without getting wet.” Give us a break, love. No one’s falling for that one. 

Except that they are. Sarah’s also the worst kind of manipulator, pretending to yield while actually withholding all. She’s dramatic and disingenuous — a bitch, in other words, and a seductress. She lures Burnaby into her quarters like Keats’s Lamia, like Apuleius’s Cupid. “If there were servants, he did not see them; if there were parrots or lion cubs around, he did not hear them. He heard only her voice.” Of course there are servants in this courtesan world; of course there are animals, for this is a jungle. 

Needless to say, Bernhardt ditches Burnaby, and even in the moment of cessation is cementing her own canonisation: “Do not be angry with me,” she instructs Burnaby even as she humiliates him.

This middle section, this flight of fancy — it’s impossible to get away from the height metaphors — is a good tale, well-imagined and tenderly realised. But the rest of the book does not subscribe to such simple, outmoded structure. The first section disjointedly tells of three hot air balloon rides taken between 1863 and 1882 and plenty more in between. We glimpse Jules Verne, George Sand, Dumas, Victor Hugo. The world is accelerating and balloons offer a bird’s-eye view, previously only allowed to God. “Aeronauts were the new argonauts,” says Barnes; although “a balloon brought no evil”. He claims that aerial flight cured mankind of the fear of the sin of hubris — of getting above oneself. 

Yet he neglects to take into account the solace of faith, and the importance of remaining grounded (there we go again). In the third section of the book, which is a monologue on grief after his wife Pat Kavanagh’s death in 2008, Barnes resists all attempts at kindness or solace. Religion (it need hardly be said, the cornerstone of hope for millennia) is reduced to a witticism, the Holy Trinity naught but the “pale Galilean and his dad”. And it is not just cosmic consolation which is rejected. Friends who ask him how he is are insensitive; those who don’t are cowardly. “Love is the meeting point of truth and magic,” he beautifully puts it. Yet what magic can there be in a coldly logical world? His grief and his humanity are sharply, painfully realised; his humility, less so.

The Orpheus and Euridyce myth, central to modern psychological understanding of the death/depth quandary (being, as it is, practically if not actually a Jungian archetype), is afforded only a mention. “Oh come off it,” says Barnes, as though he has never heard the story before. Odd, this, from a book which deals so majestically — despite its brevity — with the cross-pollination of narratives. Barnes writes from the heart; but what an informed, proud, devoted heart he has.