At its simplest Levels of Life is a book about loss and grief and love and sorrow. It brings together a number of disparate characters who are linked through their experience of ballooning – Nadar, an aerial photographer, Colonel Fred Burnaby, a British soldier and Sarah Bernhardt, the actress with whom it is thought Burnaby had an affair.
In considering their stories Julian Barnes also talks openly about his own grief at the loss of his wife, the absence that is in his life and his reaction to it.
You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed. People may not notice it at the time, but that doesn’t matter. The world has been changed nonetheless.
You put together two people who have not been put together before. […] Then, at some point, sooner or later, for this reason or that, one of them is taken away. And what is taken away is greater than the sum of what was there. This may not be mathematically possible; but it is emotionally possible.
This is a terribly sad book, and his emotions will be recognisable to anyone who has lost someone close to them, though the loss of a partner is not something I’ve experienced and must represent a real shift in perception of the future; the person you thought you were going to spend your whole life with is not longer there.
My third Readathon book.