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Julian Barnes

Levels of Life

Category: Miscellaneous | Published: 2013 | Review Added: 20-04-2013

Rating: 4 - A top read

This book is in three very different parts: the first describes early balloon flights by three nineteenth-century Europeans; the second part an affair between two of the latter, the famous French actress Sarah Bernhardt and the maverick balloonist Frederick Burnaby; the third part is a meditation on the author's grief at the death of his wife.

Barnes tries to stretch themes across all the three parts - flight, height, wind-powered versus machine-powered aviation, photography - and to imply a hidden intricacy to the work that belies its somewhat dislocated aspect. But the repeated ideas and metaphors often seem contrived, moulded cleverly to context rather than being manifestations of a deep structure.

It's a slight shame because the individual "stories" are mostly successful on their own terms. I found the story of the relationship between Bernhardt and Burnaby moving and convincing. Barnes' lament to his dead wife is very affecting and homes in on emotion with his usual precision. (The first part, the account of balloon flights, I found a bit of a yawn at times: when he's describing events rather than people's inner lives, Barnes' prose can be dry and academic, relating uninteresting detail to make up for the gap in psychological material to work on.)

Barnes' books usually have their flaws: he is readable for the perspicuity of his direct insights rather than for his sometimes over-ambitious handling of theme. His works are more linear than I suspect he would like them to be, but that linearity makes them easy to read. He always has interesting things to say, and at his best he can be very poignant. In the latter respect, Barnes plays to his strengths in Levels of Life, which makes up in readability what it lacks in polish.

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