Secular shelf life from Sarah Allen: Levels of life (book review)

LEVELS OF LIFE Levels of life

By Julian Barnes
Jonathan Cape. 118 pages. £10.99
ISBN 978 0 224 098 151

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

So begins Julian Barnes in his hard-to-categorise book Levels of Life. The library would shelve it under memoirs, but that it is not accurate. No, rather, this is in parts essay, history and short story. And while that might immediately seem whimsical or over-literary, please do not be put off, because this is a very poised, moving and serious book about love and grief.

Barnes’s partner of 30 years, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh, died 37 days after diagnosis of a brain tumour in 2008. Levels of Life is an attempt to put the unspeakable into words in three separate, but related sections.

The first is a lesson in ballooning. Barnes takes events from the early days of Anglo-French ballooning in the late 19th century and weaves them into a narrative called ‘The Sin of Height’. This explores the danger and exhilaration of the combination of fire and air which first lifted men into the atmosphere and gave them a new perspective on the earth.

In the central section, ‘On the Level’, Barnes creates a fictional relationship between two of these balloonists: ‘the divine Sarah’, Sarah Bernhardt, the beautiful and notorious actress, and Fred Burnaby, an awkward cavalryman. It is a slight story, with some pathos and humour, which makes the brutal last section, ‘The loss of depth’, all the more painful.

Here Barnes journeys into his own grief, and writes compellingly of an experience of mourning many will relate to. It is worth buying the book for this section alone.

Atheist faces death

An atheist, Barnes confronts the darkness of death without God: ‘When we killed — or exiled — God, we also killed ourselves… we sawed off the branch we were sitting on. And the view from that height… wasn’t so bad’. The trite and awkward sayings of friends are dismissed here, and instead the depths of Barnes’s loss are anatomised. The imagery and metaphors of the previous two sections are used again and again here to expose Barnes’s feelings: crash and burn, photography and memory, movement without direction. And while the bereavements of the many around us may not be dissected in the same way, their griefs are still great and terrifying. Reading this book will give us more empathy with those bereaved, and will prepare us for the griefs each one of us will face.

Yet it also stands as a call to faith. Julian Barnes writes as a man bereft in another way; his idol-factory heart bereaved him of the great comforter God, and replaced him with the image of a mortal woman. Christians in grief and desolation can look up and be upheld by the one who descended for us.

Sarah Allen writes the ‘Secular shelf life’ column for EN, is a secondary school English teacher, and is currently involved in evangelism and women’s work at Hope Church, Huddersfield.

This article was first published in the June 2013 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information. 0845 225 0057