Levels of Life
Julian Barnes
(Alfred A Knopf)
This one starts out with an overview --- often quite funny --- of the history of flight in hot-air balloons. It ends up in a wake. In the interim, the reader gets to travel far above the land --- dangerously so --- in the company of straw baskets, grappling hooks, ballast, fire, crazy characters ("balloonatics"), ambition, amazement, success, stardom, disaster, death.

The actress Sarah Bernhardt confesses an affection for the lighter-than-air: "My dreamy nature would constantly transport me to the higher regions." (She also claimed to be so thin she could stand in the rain, between the drops, never get wet).

It was impossible, we learn here, for an "aeronaut" to know if he was going up or down or over. Chicken feathers, tiny kites, torn-up newspapers were thrown out or dragged behind.

And there might be "a sin in height." Simon Magus, the founder of Gnosticism, invented a rocket fuel ... but he died in a crash landing. Icarus, son of Dædalus, fabricated wings so he could fly from Crete, but he fell into the sea.

Dr. J. A. C. Charles was one of the first (not of myth, but of reality) to soar in his hydrogen balloon, in 1786. He exclaimed, after he had descended, that he had a "moral feeling:"

    I could hear myself living. The aeronaut could visit God's space --- without the use of magic --- and colonise it. And in doing so, he discovered that didn't pass understanding. Height was moral, height was spiritual.

Sarah Bernhardt found it divine. Above the clouds "there is not silence, but the shadow of silence." The first photographs from sky to ground were made by an inventor known as Nadar; the first to propose a sinister "watching from above" was the artist Odilon Redon. He drew a balloon showing "a vast orb hovering over a grey landscape:" The eye in the sky, God's security camera.

Barnes follows the trail of aerostatic photographs from Nadar (1868) to Apollo 8, where the astronauts "were the first humans to see a phenomenon for which a new word was needed, earthrise." William Anders photographs from the moon give us

    a two-thirds-full Earth soaring in a night sky. His pictures show it in luscious color, with feathery cloud cover, swirling storm systems, rich blue seas and rusty continents.

Anders found the moon "rugged, beat-up, even boring."

    I think it struck everybody that there we'd come 240,000 miles to see the Moon and it was the Earth that was really worth looking at.

§   §   §

How well do moons, balloons, the Divine Sarah, and the origins of photography in space blend into dying, death, and grieving? On page 69 you are in the final moments of Fred Burnaby, one who followed Nadar in fixing the worldview through the camera lens. Then, on page 73 we are following author Julian Barnes in the loss of Pat Kavanagh, his wife of thirty years. Can this single short book handle them both without cracking at the seams? After the trauma of a jump into space, the fables and lines and words from the lighter-than-air are melded into mourning, the loss that came to the writer, will come to all of us.

The gap between life and death is just that, and it demands a leap. None of the tenses --- past, present, future --- can give us relief, or even acceptance. In 1786, a man "dropped to his death in Newcastle from a height of several hundred feet."

    The impact drove his legs into a flower bed as far as his knees, and ruptured his internal organs, which burst out onto the ground.

After the death of his wife, Barnes asks himself, "So how do you feel?"

    As if you have dropped from a height of several hundred feet, conscious all the time, have landed feet first in a rose bed with an impact that has driven you in up to your knees, and whose shock has caused your internal organs to rupture and burst forth from your body.

Like visions from above --- like, say, a soaring, silent balloon --- Barnes piles insights atop insights. Grief is "banal and unique." Only the old words will do: "death, sorrow, sadness, heartbreak." The euphemisms are to be avoided, and especially the all-too-easy "passed" ... as in "passed water" or "passed blood." When a friend says to him, "There's someone missing" ... it may be appropriate, "correct in both senses."

We are reminded of Christopher Hitchens on the appropriate or inappropriate words. In his final days, dying of cancer, he refused to see it as a "battle." In Mortality he writes,

    I love the imagery of struggle. But when you sit in a room with a set of other finalists, and kindly people bring in a huge transparent bag of poison and plug it into your arm, and you either read or don't read a book while the venom sack gradually empties itself into you system, the image of the ardent soldier or revolutionary is the very last one that will occur to you. You feel swamped with passivity and impotence: dissolving in powerlessness like a sugar lump in water.

In Barnes' brief on mourning, we find that old friendships are realigned, sorted, tested. Anger may appear, but, more commonly, "an overpowering indifference." One may even grow angry with indifference, "the indifference of life merely continuing until it merely ends."

There is anger at those who are foolishly insensitive:

    "So," a voice on the phone asks, a week after I have buried my wife, "what are you up to? Are you going on walking holidays?"

"Walking holiday," Barnes comments, "would hardly be the name for such a grief-trudge."

§   §   §

The author has chosen a fiendishly difficult path in Levels of Life. To speak of the death of a love, and, yet, to not veer over into gush and sentiment on the one hand (or heart-freeze on the other) demands a fine balancing act, as if one were perched on the edge of a soaring balloon basket.

Barnes is a famously good writer, and I suggest that he outdoes himself on this one. It's daring: a quick journey from the lighthearted Zeppelins of past centuries to a heart-breaking death in this. He has the ability to make his impossible loss ours as well ... yet we live his woe without being bludgeoned by it. He frames it in so many graceful ways that I catch myself thinking that I should simply copy out the whole of it for you, but I will content myself with two ferociously good quotes to be found among the rest:

    This is what those who haven't crossed the tropic of grief often fail to understand: the fact that someone is dead may mean that they are not alive, but doesn't mean that they do not exist.


    At times it feels as if life itself is the greatest loser, the true bereaved party, because it is no longer subjected to that radiant curiosity of hers.

--- Pamela Wylie
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