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Levels of Life Hardcover – September 24, 2013

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Barnes, who won the Man Booker Prize for his most recent novel, The Sense of an Ending (2011), is a stealthy essayist. His tone is urbane and wry, his style pared and sure, but his emotions are stormy. As in his previous essay collection, Nothing to Be Frightened Of (2008), death is Barnes’ theme. Though one wouldn’t think so at the outset as he describes three nineteenth-century balloon flights in England and France enjoyed by three intriguing, eventually interconnected “balloonatics.” There’s rascally Colonel Fred Burnaby; Félix Tournachon, better known as Nadar, the pioneering aerial and portrait photographer; and the “Divine” Sarah Bernhardt. Barnes muses on why being airborne is exhilarating, in spite of one’s being at the mercy of “wind and weather.” The profound metaphorical resonance of Barnes’ fascination with ballooning emerges as he addresses the sudden death of his wife of 30 years and his painful plunge into mourning. This bright wand of a book is testimony to Barnes’ commanding artistry, delving intelligence, and high imagination as he writes of being “griefstruck” with stunningly vital and tonic perception. --Donna Seaman


“An unforgettable book…Visceral, exquisitely crafted, thoughtful and heartbreaking.” —Ellan Allfrey, NPR Best Books of the Year

“Deeply stirring....The metaphoric intensity of what has come before gives Barnes's account of his grief a fierce and fiery kind of momentum.” —John Freeman, The Boston Globe

“Stunning. . . . Levels of Life is deceptively compact but takes us deep. It is as intimate a book as Barnes has ever written, but its beauty—and art—comes from elegant restraint [and] a perspective never seen before.” —Ellen Kanner, The Miami Herald

“A moving tribute to a love and lifelong partner, an examination of grief that personalizes universal emotion effortlessly and beautifully.” —Alexandra Primiani, New York Daily News

“Barnes has distilled his grief—refined and compacted it—and the result is a powerful dirge and slender but shapely work of art.” —Adam Begley, The Daily Beast
“A powerful meditation on things that lift us up—literally, as in hot air balloons, and emotionally, as in love—and things that bring us crashing to earth.” —Heller McAlpin, NPR
“Searching, angry, plangent and beautiful. . . . Only a writer of Barnes's stature could sublimate personal pain into something artistically exquisite.” —Malcolm Forbes, Minneapolis Star Tribune
“A tour-de-force masterwork. . . a stunningly intricate book that combines history, fiction and memoir in a hybrid form you're unlikely to forget.” —Doug Childers, Richmond Times-Dispatch

“As eloquent as it is soul-shuddering. . . A book about the death of a spouse that is unlike any other—book or spouse—and thus illuminates the singularity as well as the commonality of grieving.” —Kirkus (starred review) 
“A precisely composed, often deeply moving hybrid of non-fiction, 'fabulation,' and straightforward reminiscence and contemplation.” —Joyce Carol Oates, The Times Literary Supplement
“A remarkable narrative that is as raw in its emotion as it is characteristically elegant in its execution.” – Eileen Battersby, The Irish Times

“A book whose slimness belies its throbbing emotional power.” – Leyla Sanai, The Independent

“A luminous meditation on love and grief.” —Jane Shlling, The Telegraph
“At times unbearably sad, but it is also exquisite: a paean of love, and on love, and a book unexpectedly full of life. . . . In time [this] may come to be viewed as the hardest test and finest vindication of [Barnes's] literary powers.” —Rosemary Goring, The Herald (Scotland)

“Both a supremely crafted artefact and a desolating guidebook to the land of loss.” —John Carey, The Sunday Times

“Spare and beautiful...a book of rare intimacy and honesty about love and grief.  To read it is a privilege.  To have written it is astonishing.” —Ruth Scurr, The Times

“This complex, precise and beautiful book hits you in the solar plexus and leaves you gasping for air. . . . It's an unrestrained, affecting piece of writing, raw and honest and more truthful for its dignity and artistry, every word resonant with its particular pitch. It defies objectivity. Anyone who has loved and suffered loss, or just suffered, should read this book, and re-read it, and re-read it.” —Martin Fletcher, The Independent

“As the slim volume progresses, something not quite central to your vision builds, so that by the end you are blindsided by a quiet devastation. . . . Levels of Life would seem to pull off the impossible: to recreate, on the page, what it is like to be alive in the world.” —Emma Brockes, The Guardian

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 144 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf (September 24, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385350775
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385350778
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.7 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (143 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #461,598 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Julian Barnes is the author of nine novels, including Metroland, Flaubert's Parrot, A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters, England, England and Arthur and George, and two collections of short stories, Cross Channel and The Lemon Table.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

103 of 112 people found the following review helpful By FictionFan TOP 500 REVIEWER on April 4, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition
In this short book, Barnes gives an intimate picture of his on-going grief over the death of his wife in 2008. It is not easy reading as it touches on aspects of grief that most of us will have faced at some time and will either still be going through or will with luck have moved on from. He starts with a contemplation of ballooning as a metaphor for love raising us to a higher level, but the bulk of the book is about how he has lived with his grief, including his musings on whether he would or will commit suicide.

I would prefer not to give this a 'star-rating' as it surely cannot be defined as 'I love it', 'It's OK' etc., but Amazon's review system doesn't allow for the unrated or unrateable. It is undoubtedly skilfully written and moving in parts. It is, and I'm sorry to say it, also self-indulgent - while accepting that other people have undoubtedly undergone grief, Barnes writes as if he is the first to truly experience and understand it. It also seemed strange that this man in his sixties writes as if he is encountering grief for the first time in his life. I suspect he is subtly making a case for the grief of an uxorious husband (he uses the word uxorious himself, several times) being greater than other griefs.

I would, I suspect, have found this deeply moving had it been a letter from a close friend, but its intimacy is too intense - it left me with an uncomfortable sense of voyeurism. He criticises, in ways that I'm sure would enable them to recognise themselves, his friends' attempts to console him with clichéd expressions of condolence and encouragement. Have we not all felt that? But have we not all understood the genuine warmth behind these clichés and forgiven the clumsiness? Indeed, have we not all been as clumsy when the situation was reversed?
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22 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Jessica Weissman on August 1, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Julian Barnes is incapable of writing a dull paragraph or a shapeless sentence. This short book puts together three narratives centered on love, on flying, and on the loss of love. Barnes has always been good at delineating emotion, and he does not fail here.

The first two parts, mainly about ballooning with a possibly apocryphal story about Sarah Bernhardt and one of her lovers, are vintage Barnes work. Swift, spare, and fascinating.

The third part is Barnes' grief narrative, about the death of his wife and about his grief. Lots of writers have written beautiful grief narratives - Alan Paton, CS Lewis, Joan Didion and Joyce Carol Oates among them. Each of these writers, while sharing the experience of grieving a spouse, comes up with a work wholly characteristic of themselves and deeply moving. Writers write - that's how they deal with experience. CS Lewis tried to figure out how death and loss fits in with his God, Alan Paton concentrated on the wonderful nature of his wife, Joan Didion on the unbelievability and starkness of grief, and Joyce Carol Oates wrote a very long and discursive day by day account of her grief and gradual recovery, with some guilt thrown in. Characteristic each one of them.

Griefs are similar (the world indifferent to the tragedy, the misery of life without the loved one, the unfamiliarity of familiar experiences, the inability to tell stories to the loved one, the unfairness and unfathomability of it all) but personal as well. Just as his predecessors were true to their writerly selves, Barnes is his usual spare, perfectly phrased and devastating self in this book.

If you've lost a spouse you'll recognize his experience and enjoy his superb way of describing it. If not, take this as a report from a country you may well visit someday. Worth reading in either case, with the bonus pleasure of figuring out how the first two narratives connect to the third.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Mike Donovan on September 19, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I am a big fan of Julian Barnes and believe his Sense of an Ending was truly one of the great novels of our times. Here, with Levels of Life, Barnes moves into memoir with mixed results. This felt much more like a book of essays than a book being sold as memoir. It's certainly not all bad, how could it be from Julian Barnes? I thought the portion of the book that dealt with the loss of his beloved wife was gut wrenching, powerful writing. Yet, the book didn't flow for me in any way that tied the sum of its parts together. However, for the writing on grief alone, I recommend you read this. If you have no other expectations going in than reading his shattering portrait of grief (told far too seldom from a man's viewpoint), it's still worth every cent. I just can't honestly say the book - as a whole - worked for me. I suppose my problem is the tapestry stye of this book, I certainly have no quibbles with the writing of Julian Barnes - who is a master with words.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Mark Stevens VINE VOICE on August 25, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
"Levels of Life" is about death (in a way like no other) and it is extremely sad (but not maudlin). The first two sections are so matter-of-fact that the third hits you like a ton of bricks. It's all very quick; 124 pages. It's all done with Julian Barnes' deft touch.

"The Sin of Height" skims the highlights of the early attempts to get airborne. We're in the late 19th Century and Barnes compares and contrasts the efforts of Colonel Fred Burnaby and Felix Tournachon with the science and art of ballooning. Barnes is fascinated by the view from above and the view and attitude of those on the ground--how both perspectives were changed by photography in the name of art and understanding. Getting airborne changed the human perspective. At end of this section, Barnes leaps ahead a century to astronaut William Anders, circling the moon on Christmas Eve in 1968 and photographing the Earth, for the first time, with the moon in the foreground. "To look at ourselves from afar, to make the subjective suddenly objective: this gives us psychic shock," he writes. But where is Barnes going with all of this?

Actress and ballooning enthusiast Sarah Bernhardt moves front and center in the second section, "On the Level," in which Barnes explores the relationship/courtship between Bernhardt and Fred Burnaby. Barnes imagines their verbal dance, their circling each other--and the impact on Burnaby when Bernhardt ultimately goes her own way. These are two very different people whose worlds have come together, or at least passing in the night.

"On the Level" reads the most like fiction but by now we are lulled into Barnes' plain storytelling style so it's easy to imagine that Burnaby's pleadings and gentle persuasions were recorded verbatim. "Madam Sarah, we are all incomplete.
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