I very much admired Julian Barnes’s nonfiction book about facing the prospect of death, Nothing to Be Frightened Of, so I was happy to hear he has a new book somewhat along the same lines coming out. This one is called Levels of Life, and while it’s also about death, it takes a different tack. Nothing to Be Frightened Of is about, among other things, his fear of his own approaching death. Levels of Life at first doesn’t seem to be a book about death at all; instead, it begins with the stories of three nineteenth-century people involved in one way or another with ballooning: Fred Burnaby, Sarah Bernhardt, and Félix Tournachon. Through the stories of these three, he gives a brief, partial history of ballooning, and also talks about the intersections of ballooning and the new field of photography. From there, he moves to a story about a love affair between Fred Burnaby and Sarah Bernhardt. I’m not sure the extent to which the story of this love affair is true, but Barnes tells the story as though it were fiction, creating scenes and dialogue. In his final section, Barnes moves to his own life, telling the story of his grief after his wife’s death. The book brings together widely divergent topics, but Barnes interweaves them beautifully, so the book as a whole makes sense and feels complete. The stories about ballooning and photography are interesting, but they also are important as metaphors — metaphors for the emotional heights of a love affair and the crash back to earth that death and loss can bring. By the time you get to the grief memoir part of the book, it’s clear that Barnes wanted a supporting structure for the difficult story he had to tell, a deeper language with which to describe it.
It’s a very short book — although I didn’t, I could have read it in a day, and there aren’t many books I can read that quickly — and a powerful one. I’m grateful to Barnes for being willing and able to turn the experience of grief into art.