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Levels of Life

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Levels of Life is an unusual thing. It is not a novel; not a biography and not a memoir. The closest it probably comes to classification is a long essay, bound in its own hardback cover.


The subject matter: grief. Julian Barnes's grief.


We start out with a couple of rather dull stories about ballooning. The central conceit is that sometimes, when two things come together the world is changed. The first story is a mini-history of ballooning, ending when ballooning and photography come together to create something new.


The second story is a sort of love story between the French actress Sara Bernhardt and an English balloonist, Frederick Burnaby. It doesn't quite work out.


The third, longest section, is Barnes's outpouring of grief about the death of his wife. He expresses the intensity of loss, and also the undiminishing nature of the loss. He appears to take a swipe at others who experience grief in a lesser form - perhaps they simply did not love their lost ones as much as Barnes loved his wife. As he keeps reminding us, he is uxorious. Similarly, he swipes at those who grieve publicly in outpourings of tears - perhaps they are less dignified than Barnes.


Julian Barnes does convey his grief and despair in a most effective way. However, by opening a window onto his soul, one inevitably passes judgement on the soul. The result is not favourable. Barnes criticises the reactions of his friends as though they are unfeeling. They might avoid mentioning his wife's death at all, or perhaps use the wrong words, or perhaps seek to console. Nothing is quite good enough for Barnes. This may be his point, that there simply are no words that could work. But it makes him look churlish and miserable. And it's not as though his past works suggest he was a laughing boy before his wife died - The Lemon Table was a lengthy whinge about the injustice of ageing.


This reader, at least, was left wondering why Julian Barnes felt that the world had to know the extent of his grief. Were we supposed to think he was a man of unusual delicacy? Were we supposed to be impressed by the extent of his love and the length of his devotion? Were we meant to feel pity? Were we meant to wonder how he had managed to write something as impressive as Sense Of An Ending in such terrible circumstances? And on that subject, Barnes mentions a friend of his who was given a Damehood long after her partner had died - with the result that she felt she wasn't fully a dame because her partner didn't know about it. By extension, we are presumably to infer that Barnes does not feel himself to be fully a Booker Prize winner...


The sadness is that this reader was left rather cold, rather uninterested (see, Julian, I used the right word!). A man who appeared petty and humourless was unhappy. Big deal. Remind me precisely why I should have paid $15 to discover that.


As an essay goes, there are occasional attempts to cross-refer between the ballooning and the death of his wife, but they feel rather stretched. The first sections feel like padding to justify the sale of what would otherwise have been a 50 page vanity piece.


Others may get something from this, and fair play to them. There is good writing in the text and there is no doubt that Julian Barnes suffered for its creation. But it didn't feel like enough to justify the claim on readers' time.

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Thanks Mr HG, I'm relieved to find I'm not the only one who finds Barnes more than a little bit tedious. For me The Sense of an Ending was just about OK, but Flaubert's Parrot a lot of scraps without much point. Yes, he's 'a good writer' - of prose, but hasn't a clue about writing an interesting novel. He shoud stick to essays and reviews, at which he's quite good.

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I sort of enjoyed England, England although I thought JB should have done much better with such a good concept. And I liked the George half of Arthur and George - but I never went for the Arthur's romance story. I thought the Lemon Table was lamentable (do you see what I did there?).

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