The Sum of Thingsby Jeremy Polacek
Levels of Life
Where there is love, life becomes something of it. And where there is death, or a loss of love, life takes on something of that, too. Levels of Life advances by this equivocal alchemy: “You put together two things that have not been put together before,” writes Julian Barnes. “And the world is changed.”
Each essay in Levels of Life—“The Sin of Height,” “On the Level,” and “The Loss of Depth”—begins with this statement. It’s the first line you read and it burns, evocative and moving—but only in the abstract. Slowly, though, Barnes concentrates its intensity, gathering more and more meaning into the line with every recitation. By its third appearance, it’s come to be irreversibly changed, not a general declaration anymore but a laden, anguished incantation.
Perhaps grief, which destroys all patterns, destroys even more: the belief any pattern exists. But we cannot, I think, survive without such belief. So each of us must pretend to find, or re-erect, a pattern. Writers believe in the pattern their words make, which they hope and trust add up to ideas, to stories, to truths.
Some years ago, Barnes lost his wife of over 30 years, Pat Kavanagh, to a sudden and devastating illness. He too was lost. Levels of Life is his record, his testimony, an amalgam of love and loss, of Pat’s absence and presence (“the fact that someone is dead may mean that they are not alive, but doesn’t mean that they do not exist”). Ultimately, it is Barnes’s “griefwork,” a vocational endeavor to keep the lost one near while easing the pain the loss brings; it is a composite story, a photograph developed from both its negative and its positive.
Which opens with a beautiful, whirling flourish. One after the other, three 19th-century ballooning enthusiasts are introduced: English adventurer Frederick Burnaby, French actress Sarah Bernhardt, and photographer extraordinaire Félix Tournachon, aka Nadar. One by one they soar:
Colonel Fred Burnaby of the Royal Horse Guards, member of the Council of the Aeronautical Society, took off from the Dover Gasworks...Sarah Bernhardt had taken off from the centre of Paris four years previously...Félix Tournachon had taken off from the Champ de Mars in Paris.
“The Sin of Height” and “On the Level” focus exclusively on these stories of ballooning, photography, love—the combining of these things. “Because love is the meeting point of truth and magic,” Barnes explains. “Truth, as in photography; magic, as in ballooning.”
You don’t have time to object. Off you go.
To Burnaby, the soldier bohemian, soaring over the English Channel, landing in Normandy, and being given a visitor’s welcome by the astonished, hospitable locals. They had not expected him. No one did. He had pursued the Channel cross as a sort of impulse.
To Nadar, combining photography and ballooning for the first time to create aerial photography, a new vision of the world.
To Bernhardt and Burnaby commingling themselves in an tryst of Barnes’s imagining.
The pattern of their lives flits insistently across the page, three stories of love and passion told at once. Just not all of it is true. Bernhardt and Burnaby never met. It’s some of the magic of Barnes’s words. But it’s also some of its sadness. Barnes can create love where formerly there was none, changing history in small, speculative ways, yet the indisputable reality of his life remains. He cannot, like Orpheus, return life from death.
All the while, in the background a raft of words and phrases recur: uxorious, failed ballooning efforts, Nadar in the catacombs, falling from such great heights that you’re buried to the knees, your viscera disgorged. These motifs shine with the laborious luster of something turned over many times, habitually, intimately. Even photography and ballooning take on a dolorous depth.
And then, in the final essay, Barnes reminds you: “We were together for thirty years. I was 32 when we met, 62 when she died. The heart of my life; the life of my heart.” It’s almost a surprise.
Barnes captures the tragic pattern of living that those who survive must perform in the aftermath of devastation. “[I]s ‘success’ at grief, at mourning, at sorrow, an achievement, or merely a new given condition?” Barnes asks. Here he is: his pain, his eternal “her-lessness,” the “new, one-off pains for which you are quite unprepared, and unprotected against,” like having to explain, in a new language (French), to his old deliveryman that Pat died years ago. Here is what he is reading: Richard Holmes’s The Age of Wonder (2008). Here is what he found meaning and connection with: “ballooning represented freedom—yet a freedom subservient to the powers of wind and weather.” And floating above it all is Kavanagh, “caught between repeating what you did with her, but without her, and so missing her; or doing new things, things you never did with her, and so missing her differently.”
Levels of Life is a magically sad work, a record of loss that is also a record of life, whose shared stories heighten one another. One plus one is more than one; two minus one is less than one. Or as Barnes puts it, “what is taken away is greater than the sum of what was there.”