Julian Barnes’ Levels of Life

I was a fan of Julian Barnes’ Booker Prize-winning novel The Sense of an Ending, so when I saw Levels of Life sitting on the shelf of my local used book store I knew it would be worth picking up. It’s a thin little book, split into three sections. The first two focus on a group of 19th century pioneers who explored earth from above, traveling above Europe in hot air balloons: one, a historical account of the forefathers of aerial photography, who changed Earth’s perception of self forever; the other, a work of historical fiction – a love story between two balloonists, Fred Burnaby and Sarah Bernhardt, that perfectly describes the heights of love, as well as the crash and fall of breaking apart.

These two parts largely fall flat for me. I admire Barnes’ use of metaphor and symbolism, especially as he thematically weaves perspective, memory, and the levels of rising and falling into all three chapters. But the first two seem so forced – the true emotion comes out in the poignant third section, Barnes’ reflection on the death of his wife, Pat.

This short essay describes grief, memory, and the hollowed out levels of life after loss – the act of mourning and the slow re-entry into society, never quite as whole as before. It is, in a strange way, a hopeful read (especially in our modern moment of countless divorces and the deterioration of constructive family values); the grief exists for Barnes only because he loved someone selflessly enough for it to hurt. “If it didn’t matter, it wouldn’t matter… it hurts exactly as much as it is worth.”

This last part is an essay that is intelligently written, thought provoking, and encouraging of self-reflection. It reads not as a melodrama, nor as an overly-intrusive look into a private moment. Rather, it is a book that those who have experienced loss can be sure to relate to, and a book those still lucky enough to be holding on will be wise to remember during every petty fight or moment spent apart.

Read it, and go hug your loved ones a little tighter than usual. I only wish some of the motifs from the first two sections could have been worked into the third without the largely forgettable first sixty pages. “The Loss of Depth,” I think, would have been a far more accomplished piece of writing if published alone.

Overall Rating: 2/5 stars for the first two sections, 5/5 for “The Loss of Depth”

Favorite Quotations:

“We live on the flat, on the level, and yet – and so – we aspire. Groundlings, we can sometimes reach as far as the gods. Some soar with art, others with religion; most with love. But when we soar, we can also crash. There are few soft landings. We may find ourselves bouncing across the ground with leg-fracting force, dragged towards some foreign railway line. Every love story is a potential grief story. If not at first, then later. If not for one, then for the other. Sometimes, for both.”

“Insofar as I liked doing things by myself, it was partly for the pleasure of telling her about them afterwards.”


Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian

This is my first McCarthy novel, a work of historical fiction loosely grounded in fact that traces a scalping expedition in the American West.

 Violence is the plot in this novel, which reads like a Tarantino movie the whole way through. The violence overshadows everything, evoking fear and wonder at the cruelty of the American West in the 1850s, and turning western genre motifs on their head. It’s impressive how McCarthy can make us almost numb to the violence that circles around these characters. However, at least for my tastes, this gift is not altogether appealing or interesting.

I had considerable trouble making my way through this one, despite it being a relatively short book. I’m mollified by the fact that I’ve heard the critic Harold Bloom, who considers this one of the great American novels, admit that the novel is at times a trudge, and requires several attempts to get through. I think for me the problem is not the shock of the violence (is it really a shock in this day and age?), but the lack of interior psychological movement, specific plot lines, or philosophical reflections. It’s just the kind of reader I am and the kind of style I prefer, and while I admire the skill of a celebrated author like McCarthy, I just can’t say this one was for me. I’ll certainly read his other works, but more apprehensively than I originally anticipated.

I read As I Lay Dying earlier this year, and the comparisons between these two novels are immediately present. Faulkner’s focus on the interior world of characters as opposed to McCarthy’s on the world around them make these authors read vastly differently, I think. I can easily see why The Road and No Country For Old Men were turned into movies, if they resemble Blood Meridian’s symbolic and picturesque nature – his style lends itself better to a movie script than a novel. I felt like I was reading a Southwestern version of The Revenant, and wouldn’t be surprised at all if we saw this one on the big screen in a few years. It would certainly work out better than James Franco’s horrible treatment of As I Lay Dying, a novel that is far from cinematic.

Overall Rating: 3/5 stars

Favorite Quotations:

They were watching, out there past men’s knowing, where stars are drowning and whales ferry their vast souls through the black and seamless sea.

If a man’s at odds to know his own mind it’s because he hasn’t got aught but his mind to know it with.