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Levels of Life Hardcover – September 24, 2013
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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
Top customer reviews
Julian Barnes is a truly great writer - one of my favourites -and I did enjoy Levels of Life but I'm not as enthused as some of the other reviewers appear to be.
Anyone who has suffered the loss of a loved one will relate very well to the last section of the book where Barnes describes the grief he experiences with the death of his wife. It is written with great feeling and encapsulates the depth of his terrible loss - but there is nothing new here. His experiences are no different from any other person in the throes of grief. He has no spiritual affiliation so perhaps this makes the journey all the harder but I was not moved enough to agree with the Huffington Post - 'This is the most inventive and honest portrayal of grief we've read....'
Perhaps the strength of this story lies in the simplicity of the telling.
The opening half, about the balloonists, is unquestionably pleasant though somewhat baffling. Where is this all going? you wonder. What's the point? Then, when it switches to a grief memoir, wow! Kaboom! The book becomes much more involving, for me. By the end he's tied the whole thing together well enough, all right. It becomes a sort of miniature jewel, yet it's just the right size for the territory it's covering. (Okay, that's mixing metaphors.)
At times sad, it is mostly romantic and somehow simultaneously thought-provoking. Can't help wondering, though, how different his story would have been if he had children, which are never mentioned.
Do read this book. It won't take you long, but its effect will be long-lasting.
I had read through the minutiae of the feelings of loss of one's life partner, and was wondering when this would tie in to the topic of hot air ballooning that started the novel. And suddenly I realized that I was on the last page.
That's the only real problem with the Kindle. Although you can see the percentage read at the bottom of the screen, you don't get the feel and visual cues that you are at the last page until you see that there is nothing more to come.
Although, as it is with all Barnes' books, exceptionally well written, I don't think the book is a novel. Three long essays filled with hot air. The bit about Sarah Bernhardt was interesting, but hardly relevant except in so far as she once took off in a balloon from the centre of Paris.
This book was very emotional for me because as Barnes, I also lost the love of my life.
I can easily relate to his emotions and thoughts.
It was recommended to me by a dear friend that lost her husband recently, also she felt a great connection with the author.
I believe that Barne's simple stories talks very deeply about our human condition and how vulnerable we are when we had lost somebody for ever and we are left with memories wishing to share them with other people.
We read the book in a book club with 10 friends and all of us were deeply touched.