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.
"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...
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).
Full Review (716 words).
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.
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