Levels of Life


Levels of Life by Julian Barnes

Jonathan Cape, 118 pages, £10.99, April, ISBN 9780224098151

Knopf, 144 pages, $22.95, September, ISBN 9780385350778

“We’ve work to do,” says Blake Morrison of The Guardian about Julian Barnes’ Levels of Life, which includes, alongside two narratives of ballooning (one historical, one fictional), a meditation on the death of his wife. “Not grief-work such as the author’s, but work all the same.”

The book–which came out in the UK in March, and which will come out in the US in September–inspires similar sentiments in many reviewers. There is an eagerness among them to do work along with Barnes, to do work alongside the work they see him doing. Rarely do we find a direct judgment of the book put in straightforward terms.  No “good,” no “bad.” Leo Robson in his prickly review for The New Statesman is pretty much the only critic to take the book as if it were an object placed before to pronounce upon.  Everyone else seems to feel some need to abandon this more conventional relationship to the thing and engage with it in their own way.  If these efforts come to terms with the object as an artistic object, that’s fine. If not, the important thing is that they documented an experience of art.  The question is, does this alternative approach make for better criticism?


The answer depends on the motives behind these attitudes.  And there are two discernible ones, prompted by two discernible features of the book which each tries to respect.

There is, first, the fact that the book is a powerful and very personal look at grief, at loss, at death and what it means.  It is divided into three sections, the first two chronicling the adventures of early 19th century balloonists. The first section itself contains a fascinating history of ballooning, similar to Richard Holmes’ recent history, and turns into a enthralling account of the adventures of Nadar in aerial photography. Then there is a very touching, very sad story in the second section of two balloonists, a fiction about their flirtations and misunderstandings very similar to “The Revival,” a beautiful story of Barnes’ in The Lemon Table.  But then after this section, there is a final nonfictional section in which Barnes channels the meditations which run throughout the book and attempts to come to terms with the actual death of wife.  This is frank and forthright, deeply touching and tender.  All together, is proves a strangely powerful, even formidable work.  The whole work is a very human document, and elicits a desire to feel through the experience with the author.  We don’t just read along, we feel along.  All this makes critics want to do something more than comment.

Then, second, critics also feel compelled to do some work because–what already might be clear from this little summary–there is also a disconnectedness to the work.  And this isn’t just because of the sections themselves and the changing shift of focus between them.  There is the way the book is full of pauses between thoughts, gaps between paragraphs, jumps between topics, and seems to take us up in an effort to give some sort of continuity or or generate some kind of community between these juxtapositions.  In fact, the book is quite frank about this, from its first sentences.  “You put together two things that have not been together before.  And the world is changed.”  The work invites and responds to efforts which bridge gaps and make connections.


Critics for whom grief is the most important fact about the book emphasize its third part and what Barnes talks about there.  Though the book is full of interesting individuals, complex characters–Nadar, Burnhardt and Burnaby are all vividly drawn–Barnes does not really take us into their thoughts and feelings (Jane Shilling in the Independent though notes in a very nice phrase that “there is something intrepid and fragile about these characters”–in the same way, indeed, that there is something fragile about the rather flatly character of Tony Webster in The Sense of an Ending).  One of the most interesting ideas to arise in all the critical discussion is that it would be nice to see a full novel developed out of the Burnhardt-Burnaby narrative: Tim Martin makes the case pretty forcefully that there is potential there.  This is understandable and is meant as a sincere testament to the success of the first two parts, but it also betrays an assumption behind commentary on the book: that in some way the third piece is its main focus.

Accordingly, instead of relating more about the characters of the work, critical comment has a tendency to drift towards the third section, towards giving us some information about Barnes’ wife and towards giving us some information about Barnes himself as a character in this section.  Pat Kavenagh was well known as a literary agent, and a few reviewers of the book actually worked with her.  Emma Brockes recalls: “Precision was the thing with Pat, from her couture to the punctuation of her emails.”  Blake Morrison also speaks of his long professional relationship with her.  There are many pictures of her there in the reviews.  More reviews will no doubt add further testimony about her life.  Similarly there is much information about Barnes’ feelings.  We find critics combing through the stories he has written since 2007, when Kavenagh died, looking for signs of his dealing with it.  Brockes’ Guardian review is called “The Sense of an Another Ending,” which comes to hint at some specific connection between Barnes’ last novel and the death.  Barnes’ very honest and–given that talk about it is still almost taboo–frankly courageous discussion of thoughts about suicide gets much attention (it is the feature topic of a whole article by Hannah Furness in the Independent), and it is hard not to see that for reviewers the literary history of his works from this period now are seen through the lens of his remarks in Levels of Life.

This is not to say that this focus is misguided, even when it may come at the expense of discussing other aspects of the book or other characters in it.  While the work has to be the thing that critics consider first and foremost, these reviews confront the fact that we may be too complacent nowadays in following the old rule that the author’s intentions can’t be confused with what we find in the text itself–the autonomy of the artwork and all that.  Whatever its effects, for a writer who has been so dedicated to this dictum when it comes to the more private aspects of his life, to have a book that has a section in it this personally revealing can’t but call attention to itself, and this at least justifies pushing against it as the reviewers do here.  In fact, it may allow us to pick up on the possibility that Barnes may have always been much more interested in toeing these lines and even overstepping them than keeping them clearly drawn.

They even suggest the idea that invoking such critical rules about the author’s impersonality with respect to the work, far from keeping things straight in aesthetic evaluation, makes us, when we do have to turn to the personal, do it so crassly and unfeelingly.  For the decent way reviewers have handled themselves in dealing with these personal matters makes the case for dealing further in this vein of criticism.  Brockes anticipates reactions to the it that will see it as a tell-all or celebrity confession, but as of this moment, there is a remarkable display of sensitivity to the personal aspects of Barnes’ narrative.  Reading them makes us recall that one function of reviewers is to set an example for the public, to set the tone of critical conversation.  The efficient discharge their office, with so many of the ugly abuses of privacy that have been happening in Britain all around them, makes their behavior impossible not to admire.  Perhaps it is time for a wider questioning of the commitment to the impersonal that so dominates modern  literary criticism.

Nothing as abstract as this of course can motivate the reviewers in this turn towards the third section of the book.  It is more likely they are responding to the kind of grief that Barnes says is important to him; and minding the kind that he does not like.  Important here is a scene Barnes describes vividly: he is at lunch with some friends after her death, and for some reason or other he brings her up in the conversation. Barnes is met with an uncomfortable silence. The moment passes, the conversation moves on. But it happens again.  Again no one knows what to say and after a moment things resume as normal. But what, really is normal about this?  How did this sort of consensus-built indifference become normal?  Frustrated, confused, something spiteful in him brings her up again. And yet again there is nothing.  Barnes is furious at this. It is a vivid moment in the history of his grieving, and looking back at it from a distance, Barnes says, touchingly, that he might have reacted this way because he so much enjoys hearing more about her–any scrap, any fragment, even other people’s dreams about her–so as to see where and how she is still alive to people. It it is because of this that he also says he hates the idea that she wouldn’t be brought up because of some sort of conversational rule.

This incident strikes a chord with British reviewers.  It is a very English slipup , and the reviewers’ shared resentment is a very English resentment at the coldness of social relations (Michael Wood in the LRB has been interested in the way these sorts of English dynamics surrounding Barnes in the past).  And so their reviews show many signs of trying to respect the hatred of silence that Barnes displays, rather than write a review that would gloss over facts and focus on the mere aesthetic aspects of the book in an effort to maintain some idea of propriety.  They seem indeed to get that to write about the book as a mere aesthetic object is precisely what the book itself would make impossible.  That this is art feeding the desire to think about the author, what he is privately feeling, and its disjunction or conjunction with what he more publicly writes.


There is much less risky work to be done when it comes to resolving the book’s formal difficulties.  Much more effort in the reviews is made in this direction.  You can see the comfort of the critics come through in these moments.  Trained in the explication of modernist techniques of juxtaposition, they can take up the task of explaining how the book’s difficulties and incoherences are really not those things at all.  They can dramatize the experience of readerly realization, and point to specific instances when it occurs too–when a textual gap is jumped by some insight that can be elaborated and made intelligible in clear and precise language.  They are here given something to do, and they do it.  Here work really feels like work.

In fact, the problem of how to solve these problems of form becomes more compelling and interesting than most other aspects of the book, because the book can even seem to get a little petulant from this point of view about this task.  Following the statements about how the world is changed, Barnes continues: “People may not notice at the time, but that doesn’t matter.  The world has been changed nonetheless.”  This not only asks for it.  It seems like a challenge to the critic to notice these things.

Accordingly, the critics bring out all the big tools in the critical toolkit.  How are they going to piece together a work in three sections?  Morrison refers to “themes,” that can continue across three sections regardless of how they are split up.  How are they going to justify the different genres of the work (history, fiction, memoir)?  Particulars are there in all of them, regardless of how they are treated (a curious return of the pre-Romantic understanding of literary kinds): we get different views of them like we get different views of the soap Bloom endearingly carries in his pocket throughout Ulysses.  And how are they going to bring together the sheer scattered nature of the interests of the work, as they move from facts about ballooning, to the many thoughts in Burnaby’s head as he professes his love to Burnhardt, to what kind of soccer he tries to distract himself with in his grief?  One solution is heard constantly: metaphor.  As Leyla Sanai in her excellent April 13th review for The Independent says:

Levels of Life uses the pioneering of balloon flight and the development of aerial photography as metaphors for the soaring heights, freedom, and imprinting of memories, of love.

Brockes in her Guardian piece speaks of Barnes taking up “the liberating apparatus of metaphor”:

The book’s guiding metaphor is Nadar’s feat of being the first man to take an aerial photograph, from a balloon over northern Paris, and in that moment to experience a sort of existential freefall that finds its echo in the last third of the book.

Martin Fletcher in another review for the Independent, explaining how the book works, says:

[P]ain beyond words can only be expressed metaphorically.

Robson in The New Statesman expresses his displeasure by summing up the book’s effort as,

 a lesson […] on the dos and don’ts of metaphor.

That there might be something wrong with the use of metaphor is a question, but that metaphor is the most important thing to grasp–this is not.  And this seems to be what all the critics say.

This is well and good.  In fact, they are only being sensitive to the language of Barnes himself in describing the book to Brockes:

I was initially planning to write about grief in terms of Eurydice and the myth thereof.  By that point the overall metaphor of height and depth and flat and falling and rising was coming into being in my mind.

The author, after all, probably has a good language for talking about what he is trying to bring off, and in trying to make sense of such a book, this kind of comment is a gift for trying to come to terms with it for people.  But still, we might question whether metaphor is in fact the right way to make sense of the disparate interests of the book before we claim, like Ian McGillis does in his recent review of the book for The Montreal Gazette, that,

The age of ballooning provides writers and other artists with such a perfect metaphor that you would almost think a bunch of them had cooked up the whole idea over a few drinks.

Was it really the most natural thing in the world that someone should come along and use ballooning for a metaphor for how he feels after the death of his wife?

And we might begin to question this by asking whether Barnes’ grief itself is the thing the metaphor stands in for–which is the what is implicit behind what Barnes says, but which perhaps isn’t the best description of what he is doing.  The critic can wonder, that is,  just at what point the actual is entered into here–what it means for grief to be literal.  Brockes describes turning to the third section of the book: “with a sudden, shattering lurch, the figurative is made real.”  This seems is a question of how much the beginning of the book does work for the later part of the book, and the later part of the book does it for the beginning.  And while this gets at what the event is that happens between the second and third parts of the book, does it really get at what is said in the earlier moments of the work, when these topics also had so much meaning for the characters?  There is a strange sort of desire for the literal itself to mean grief, in other words: for grief to mean dealing with the hard, grubby facts of the world, to dispense with all this literary hocus pocus, all this falsity and double-talk–and not to mean talking about height and depth and flat and rising and things like that.  Tim Martin talks almost admiringly of the way the last section of the book is “so unsparingly desolate and unconsoled that it sweeps away the rest of the book like chaff in a hurricane,” and other reviewers echo this in a strange, contradictory kind of praise, given they were looking for some way to praise the rest of the work too.

This tendency to refer to metaphor because it brings all the disparate formal elements of the book together through the final section–rather than to give us some sort of precise way to understand its language–has some neat side effects. In the process of piecing together what they see as the parts of the work reviewers continually take up the language of the work in a rather looser way in order to try and give it some coherence, to give some sense of the form they think may be there. This can lead to some surprising insights. They repeat the work’s tone, they use its themes, they use its metaphors and similes, extending them, elaborating them.

Love gives air, exaltation, uplift; we aspire to the heightened state. […] But, like memory, height can be dangerous.

Anyone who has been bereaved will know that some people expect grief to be finite; something one recovers from, like the flu.

Just as every love story is a potential grief story, so every exultant balloon ascent is a potential disaster; as well as freedom and adventure, there is hubris and farce.

This is not Barnes being quoted here, but the reviews (Fletcher, Sanai, and Morrison respectively).  What is so interesting about this is it isn’t paraphrase, the normal literary critical technique that might have been employed here. It is really a rewriting. They draw conclusions Barnes doesn’t himself draw, from language that is almost identical–and only almost.  The aim of the quotation itself is to differ from the sense of the original.  So in staying faithful to the work’s gestures towards form, they seem really only to be committed to its lack of form, its more informal aspects.

Getting a hold on this slippage of form into the informal is what allows Michael Wood in the LRB to share with us something in between that seems the best single statement on the book, as he is discussing Barnes’ statement that grief is banal:

Balloons and photography, flight and fall, height and depth, sky and sewers, town and country, England and France, France and Germany, love and grief, dreams and memory: these are some of the things Barnes puts together around the people that life put together and took apart. So many ‘patterns’, as Barnes says, collisions, coincidences, cancellations. Might not these careful symmetries overwhelm the careless, asymmetrical fact of death? They might but they don’t, and I mention all this because Barnes has risked writing a terrible book in order to write this very good one. The bad book hovers just off the pages, a sort of uncredited collaborator, a reminder that if we don’t want to be original about the banal, we don’t want to be banal about it either.


There remain a few difficult questions with respect to each of these ways of working with this book, and the manner in which they combine.  How much of our sympathy is bound up with our attempt to make formal sense of the book; and how much of our interest in its form is dependent upon our sympathy?  Leo Robson’s review, which is also a review of the new book on early ballooning by Richard Holmes (someone Barnes quotes in Levels of Life for his grisly story of a man who fell from a balloon)–Robson’s review gives us an answer to both, because he on the one hand can’t sympathize with Barnes’ manner of writing about his grief, and on the other sees little that is worthwhile in trying to make sense of its form.  He rejects outright, as it were, the invitation of Morrison.  He doesn’t want to get to work.

And this, far from detracting from his review, makes him ask the crucial question which neither of the other approaches really takes the time to ask: how much effort should we as readers really be putting into this?  Which itself is asking a deeper question: aren’t we really just doing what the language of the work asks us to do?

After all, what is strangest about the statement about putting things together, and what makes us want to put things together–to answer that challenge–is the way it is in this strange and ambivalent voice: “You put things together…”  Well, who does?  Barnes?  Or us?  One of the tricks Robson sees in this is the way such a statement doesn’t really need a reader at all, even though it may invite one.  In normal circumstances, we would think of it as a statement that generalized from personal experience, and related this statement to another.  But here, it doesn’t show any trace of its origin, and it could just as much be an empty saying  as a generalization from personal experience.  In that case, are we really the recipient of such a statement?  Isn’t it then like a philosophical treatise, admitting of propositions and subordinate propositions?

It sounds to him, accordingly, “teacherly,” full of “acidity and self-righteousness,” not the voice of someone who is going to be talking about his grief.  It is on “anxious terms with confession.”  And while this is a little harsh, it gets at something strange indeed about how the work is getting us to work.  The paradoxical effect of this language is that though it talks as if it doesn’t need anyone, this is precisely the reason we think it needs us to read it.  We do this, even when we know this language knows it to be so.  We imitate it, we talk in its voice, because we want the work to talk to us, we want to turn statements like these into things that we have genuinely heard, that were generalizations of personal experience directed to us.  Robson seems to feel like this is taking advantage of something in the reader, when in a way Barnes is actually manipulating this aspect of the language, working on this level.

But to want to escape from this may be redolent of a certain displeasing tendency in criticism to simply want to do away with any of the complications involved in dealing with a work authored by another human being entirely.  The other side of cultivating so many approaches to a work and so much readerly independence in our time as we do, is a certain ready distrust of books in general.  That is, not so much a distrust of what is said but of the mere fact of whether we can get anything out of reading or out of literature itself.  This sort of petulant attitude seems to have started infecting literary critics and indeed readers of all stripes after the 80s, and is still around in our impatience with certain works we now find unsuggestive, irrelevant, or too political.  Suspicion of what the work is expressing, prevalent in cultural criticism of all sorts, becomes a suspicion about the extent to which any critical statement about a work was doing what that work wanted us to do. It becomes, in other words, an attempt to continually wrest oneself away from the work, towards the goal of total readerly independence–something that isn’t too distinguishable from the aim to reduce a work to a totally inhuman, objectlike document, or a set of data ready to be analyzed by technology–so as to get somewhere, anywhere, outside of the grasp of its basic claim on our interest as individuals with free choice over our attention and feelings.  If a work doesn’t allow this independence,  if it doesn’t play by the rules, we can chuck it away.

In the end, whether we are working or being put to work or not, and whether we like this or not, we can say is that the critical discussion of this book is fascinating, and it will be all the more interesting to see how it develops when the work comes out in the US soon.