Grief is a tricky one. Levels of Life by Julian Barnes deals with it in a beautifully poignant and thoughtful way that had me smiling through the sadness, touching on his own grief and exploring the grief of others through fiction.
“Every love story is a potential grief story.” Julian Barnes, Levels of Life.
I am a recent Julian Barnes convert. Having read The Sense of an Ending on my last trip to France, reading another of his books on my recent trip to Germany seemed like an apt thing to do. This book surprised me in ways I cannot describe and I found myself reading every page on the edge of my seat, almost begging for more when the last page turned. I am at a bit of a loss in describing exactly how this book made me feel and what kind of effect it had on me- but truly, it left me a little lost for words. In all the right ways.
Reviewing this one adequately falls far outside of my capacity but a book like this deserves to be documented as being worthy of a good read. The story is split into three parts and combines grief with history, fiction and real life memoir. We are introduced to Felix Tournachon, a balloonist and photographer in the first of three narratives, The Sin of Height, and the story of how he was a pioneer in aeronautical photography. The love he has for his wife lasts the entirety of her life and he loses his own not long after her death. A lifetime of love.
We meet, in the second episode, Fred Burnaby, also a balloonist, and follow his lust for Sarah Bernhardt. We learn that his love for her is unrequited when suddenly, after a positive start to their relationship, she appears at a social gathering with a completely different man. Love is hard and doesn’t always go to plan and grief is there to heal us when this happens.
put together two people who have not been put together before; & sometimes
the world is changed, sometimes not. They may crash & burn, or burn &
crash. But sometimes, something new is made, and then the world is
Needless to say, it was the third part of the story, the true story of Julian Barnes’ own loss of his wife, that had me the most hooked and invested. I have been quite fortunate in my life, having only lost a few close friends and family over my lifetime, but Barnes writes about grief in a way that makes sense and resonates with me as a reader. Whilst I enjoyed the first two stories, I found it a little difficult to understand where they were going, whilst I was reading them. It was only upon completion of the book as a whole that I understood and appreciated their inclusion.
I cannot wait to delve deeper into Julian Barnes’ back catalogue because his prose does beautiful things to my mind. Levels of Life by Julian Barnes was truly wonderful.