Summary and book reviews of Levels of Life by Julian Barnes

Levels of Life

By Julian Barnes

Levels of Life
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • Hardcover: Sep 2013,
    144 pages.
    Paperback: Jul 2014,
    144 pages.

    Publication Information

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Book Reviewed by:
Elena Spagnolie

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About this Book

Book Summary

"You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed..."

Julian Barnes's new book is about ballooning, photography, love and grief; about putting two things, and two people, together, and about tearing them apart. One of the judges who awarded him the 2011 Man Booker Prize described him as "an unparalleled magus of the heart." This book confirms that opinion.

On The Level

You put together two things that have not been put together before; and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Pilâtre de Rozier, the first man to ascend in a fire balloon, also planned to be the first to fly the Channel from France to England. To this end he constructed a new kind of aerostat, with a hydrogen balloon on top, to give greater lift, and a fire balloon beneath, to give better control. He put these two things together, and on the 15th of June 1785, when the winds seemed favourable, he made his ascent from the Pas-de-Calais. The brave new contraption rose swiftly, but before it had even reached the coastline, flame appeared at the top of the hydrogen balloon, and the whole, hopeful aerostat, now looking to one observer like a heavenly gas lamp, fell to earth, killing both pilot and co-pilot.

You put together two people who have not been put together before; and sometimes the world is changed, sometimes not. They may crash and burn, or burn...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
Reading Group Discussion Questions for Levels of Life by Julian Barnes.

  1. Julian Barnes begins the book with a striking assertion: "You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed" [p. 3]. How are the seemingly disparate concerns of Levels of Life - love and grief, ballooning and photography, height and depth - brought together? In what ways are these themes connected? In what ways is the book itself an unprecedented act of joining, even as it is about loss and separation?
  2. What is the effect of placing his essay on grief after the section on the history of balloon flight and aerial photography, and the fictionalized account of the love affair between Fred Burnaby and Sarah Bernhardt? Would ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

So it is with love. Barnes creates a metaphor between love (found and lost) and the intrepid adventure of hot air ballooning and lays the groundwork for talking about the death of his wife. Initially, the connection feels somewhat unnatural, however Barnes’s thoughtful writing and rich illustrative comparisons carry it through.   (Reviewed by Elena Spagnolie).

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Media Reviews
Publishers Weekly

British novelist Barnes (The Sense of an Ending) offers a delicately oblique, emotionally tricky geography of grief, which he has constructed from his experience since the sudden death in 2008 of his beloved wife of 30 years, literary agent Pat Kavanagh.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. Barnes' reticence is as eloquent as it is soul-shuddering.

Barnes and Noble

As always, the Man Booker Award winner moves in unanticipated ways, circling in this instance around, of all things, ballooning and photography, to disclose his story of grieve and gifts received. Editor's recommendation.

Joyce Carol Oates, The Times Literary Supplement (UK)

A precisely composed, often deeply moving hybrid of non-fiction, 'fabulation,' and straightforward reminiscence and contemplation.

The Independent (UK)

A book whose slimness belies its throbbing emotional power.

The Telegraph (UK)

A luminous meditation on love and grief.

The Sunday Times (UK)

Both a supremely crafted artefact and a desolating guidebook to the land of loss.

The Times (UK)

Spare and beautiful...a book of rare intimacy and honesty about love and grief. To read it is a privilege. To have written it is astonishing.

The Independent (UK)

This complex, precise and beautiful book hits you in the solar plexus and leaves you gasping for air ... It's an unrestrained, affecting piece of writing, raw and honest and more truthful for its dignity and artistry, every word resonant with its particular pitch. It defies objectivity. Anyone who has loved and suffered loss, or just suffered, should read this book, and re-read it, and re-read it.

The Guardian (UK)

As the slim volume progresses, something not quite central to your vision builds, so that by the end you are blindsided by a quiet devastation ... Levels of Life would seem to pull off the impossible: to recreate, on the page, what it is like to be alive in the world.

The Herald (Scotland) (UK)

At times unbearably sad, but it is also exquisite: a paean of love, and on love, and a book unexpectedly full of life ... In time [this] may come to be viewed as the hardest test and finest vindication of [Barnes's] literary powers.

The Irish Times

A remarkable narrative that is as raw in its emotion as it is characteristically elegant in its execution.

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Metaphorically Speaking: The Power of Metaphor

In Levels of Life, Julian Barnes creates an extended metaphor between the trials of hot-air ballooning and the experience of love found and lost. In one example he writes:

Grief is vertical – and vertiginous – while mourning is horizontal. Grief makes your stomach turn, snatches the breath from you, cuts off the blood supply to the brain; mourning blows you in a new direction. But since you are now in enveloping cloud, it is impossible to tell if you are marooned or deceptively in motion. …You are a first-time aeronaut, alone beneath the gasbag, equipped with a few kilos of ballast, and told that this item in your hand you've never seen before is the valve-line.

From Greek mythology, to Shakespeare, to Star Wars, ...

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