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Levels of Life

3.92  ·  Rating details ·  10,620 ratings  ·  1,497 reviews
Julian Barnes's new book is about ballooning, photography, love and grief; about putting two things, and two people, together, and about tearing them apart.

"You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed..."

One of the judges who awarded him the 2011 Man Booker Prize described him as "an unparalleled magus of the heart." This b
Hardcover, 128 pages
Published September 24th 2013 by Knopf (first published April 4th 2013)
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As I type these words, there's a huge stack of books in my sight line. The books lie horizontally rather than vertically but the spines look interesting laid flat that way. Their various colors and widths are like a graphic representation of the layers of geological strata beneath the earth's surface, a cross section of the world, as it were.

The books in the stack are the ones I selected at the beginning of January from the mountain of unread books I own, and I'm determined to reduce the selecte
Jul 21, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: first-reads
The title announces the premise: there are definite highs and lows in life and a great author (like Barnes) can lay them out metaphorically and emotionally. At the topmost level we soar, giddy with love, thrilled by the ride. At the unlucky other end, we may have lost a loved one, crashing hard in the fall, crippled by grief. Barnes probed these levels by structuring this short book into three parts:

1) “The Sin of Height” -- this is essentially an extended metaphor depicting freedom and flight
I was introduced to Julian Barnes with his 2011 Man Booker prize winner, The Sense of an Ending, which is a favorite of mine. After finishing an 800 page book recently, I looked for something shorter this time and chose Barnes' 128 page Levels of Life. It is unimaginable as to how the author was able to fit in so much emotion into this short mix of history and memoir.

Levels of Life is like nothing else I have ever read. Filled with his personal thoughts about the love and then grief he felt aft
Jul 21, 2017 rated it really liked it
Levels of Life
Julian Barnes

Grief is another word for love

“You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed. People may not notice at the time, but doesn’t matter. The world changed nonetheless.”

How difficult is it to write about love? And to express grief is perhaps even more onerous. We have plethora of literature written about both love and grief still we find ourselves quite incompetent on each occasion we try to pen down these fee
Sep 24, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Those who find love in free falling
Recommended to Dolors by: Deea
Shelves: read-in-2014
“You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed”, proclaims Julian Barnes in the first two sentences that open this atypical book, an idea that becomes the foundation and pillar of three seemingly unrelated stories that concoct Levels of Life.

Take photography and balloons as the first example.
The French photographer Nadar had a thrill for experimentation and decided to take distance from terra firma to gain a better perspective from afar. He captured
Iris P
Jun 10, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: People experiencing lost, bereavement
Recommended to Iris P by: Bianca
Levels of Life

★★★★★ 5 Heart-rending stars!

I've frequently found that reading a story that reliably takes you where you hoped it was going all along can be wonderfully soothing. There are times when, as a reader, you crave exactly that: the comfort that a predictable story can bring. Then there are other times when you stumble upon a book that takes you in such an unexpected direction that you find yourself, not only surprised by the unique nature of what you are reading but actually thrilled by
Apr 10, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition

Oh wow...

I need to strike while the iron is hot with this one.

Don't be fooled by the apparent anecdotal aloofness of the first two sections of this recollection of grief. They deal with balloons and height and stories of Englishmen and Frenchmen, famous and less famous. They deal with Sarah Bernhardt and Nadar and officers and life lived "on the level" (I will let you discover exactly what that means). The third section's more personal narrative could not have been written without them. Their co
Nat K
Jul 08, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Nat by: Dawn

"Love may not lead where we think or hope, but regardless of the outcome, it should be a call to seriousness and truth."

This is such a difficult book to review coherently for so many reasons. Perhaps the disparity between the topics of the three essays threw me somewhat.

The only book I'd previously read of Julian Barnes' was "Metroland". I still have the tattered paperback on a bookshelf somewhere. I carried it around in my handbag for months, long after I'd finished reading it, I loved it that
Dec 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: literature, biography
A friend contacted me during the week and asked if I had this book. He knows I like Barnes’ writing – and so he wanted to know if I’d read the last story in this book in particular. I hadn’t. He said the other two weren’t nearly as good, but thought I might like this last one. I’ve only read the one he suggested. I went to my local library and borrowed the book – realising with a kind of shock that I hadn’t been to my local library in a years, so long that they had to reactivate my library card. ...more

People very differently deal with own feelings after the death of their beloved ones. Denying, anger, withdrawing into oneself, despair. In fact, how many mourners so many ways to pass through bereavement and grief. Julian Barnes’ Levels of life is a strange novel. Though from the cover the subject is already known you’re nevertheless confused. Novel, written after the death of his wife, consists from three , seemingly not connected, parts. Barnes takes you for a strange trip. From the firm gr
Sep 26, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2016
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.
- Julian Barnes, Levels of Life


'Levels of Life' is hard to categorize. It is cut into three sections, three discrete chunks. Part 1: The Sin of Height is about balloons and photography. It reads like narrative nonfiction, like John McPhee at his most poetic. It focuses on the life of Félix Tournachon aka Nadar. Part 2: On the Level is about love. It is written like hi
Debbie "DJ"
Levels of life. What a fitting title for this novel, overflowing with metaphor. It reads as three different books all in one slim novel. Three different levels of emotion, as well as the physical level of height.

The first section deals with aeronautics, in the form of ballooning. It depicts the first view of our world from above and at a distance. A beautiful quote was, "Altitude reduces all things to their relative proportions, and to the truth. Cares, remorse, disgust become strangers: How eas
This was my first Julian Barnes book/audiobook, and it kills me to admit that I won't be able to write a review worthy of this historical essays collection. So, I'll just write down a few thoughts.

When I borrowed this book, I had no idea what to expect, as I didn't read the blurb, I just saw it was available, and since Barnes was on my TBR, I downloaded it.

I enjoyed this audiobook from the very beginning, as Julian Barnes' narration was music to my ears - I love his proper, educated, English acc
Aug 02, 2014 added it
Shelves: best-of-2014
I was going to lazily steal the pithy expression "devastating" from the blurb on the front, but that would be an insult to a writer who makes such precise use of language himself. For what exactly does devastating mean? To lay waste. And in fact Mr. Barnes does quite the opposite. He builds. He builds metaphors, he builds connections, he builds bridges. He constructs a dizzying architecture of bold, he tells stories and flies balloons and peoples his pages with extraordinary characters and there ...more
Julie Christine
The Loss of Depth, Julian Barnes's meditative essay on grief, rocked me to my core. It is the final of three "levels of life" he explores in this slim book and is, by itself, the reason for reading this book. In contrast, I felt very detached from the first two essays, which were interesting but rather chilly expositions on ballooning, obsession and Sarah Bernhardt.

But the exploration of grief. Jesus. It hurt. It's as raw and brutal as any personal essay I have read. It chills me to think there
"Levels of life " - seems to start slowly, and involves some difficulty, if you're not a loyal reader of Barnes.
The last 46 pages are her emotional center, if you will read only these, you would be fully satisfied by the reading you have chosen.

The story has a structure divided into a three parts. The three major "chapters" are linked by an idea who is repeated as a leitmotif, throughout the volume :

" You put together two things that have never been joined, and the world is changing ".

As I s
Roger Brunyate
A Vertical Photograph

Photograph (cropped) by David Sanderson

Julian Barnes' memoir of grief for the death of his wife Pat Kavanagh in 2008 after a thirty-year relationship, must be one of the most moving tributes ever paid to a loved one, but also the most oblique. So let's start with something simple, a photograph. Look up Craig Brown's marvelously-titled review "Lifted by Love, Grounded by Grief" in the Daily Mail of London, mostly for the photograph that accompanies it. Julian is seated. Pat s
Raul Bimenyimana
Jan 28, 2020 rated it really liked it
This book was recommended to me by Dhanaraj a while back. It's the story of love and grief told with candor. The book is divided in three parts, the first one being about nineteenth century balloonists with emphasis on the French photographer/balloonist/writer Gaspard-Félix Tournachon who was the first person to do aerial photography, the second part of the book is a fictionalized love and heartbreak affair between the great French actress Sarah Bernhardt and British officer Fred Burnaby, and th ...more
Feb 08, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
At first I caught myself wondering "why the hell am I reading about 19th century people flying balloons?" The answer was given to me in the last of the three parts where Barnes masterfully connects the first two with a memoir of his grief following the death of his wife. It's not a book of advice on how to manage the loss of a beloved person. Instead, Barnes shares his experience and his thoughts during that time. Thoughts which can lead to other thoughts, which can lead to even more thoughts an ...more
Buddy read with a couple of GR friends (hey Dawn and Nat!). Usually when I rate a book lower than a friend, I end up wondering what exactly it was that I missed. But here, we agreed on the main points, what exactly bothered us, and I that this book is emotionally affecting. I mean, when you enter into the subject of intense grief, in this case the loss of a spouse, and the mourning that follows - well you'd have to be missing a heart not to be affected by the pain described. That's especially tr ...more
Oct 17, 2013 rated it really liked it
Barnes is a Master of Metaphor. Every single element he introduces in the first section is used, nothing is wasted. I'm left marveling at the connections his mind makes. Even the story he weaves of the nonfictional Burnaby being confused by metaphor becomes a metaphor. And what else is metaphor but the connection of two things with no previous connection, a theme Barnes uses to start off each of the three sections. And how else can emotions be described, except by the use of metaphors.

Though thi
Amanda Patterson
How I wish Julian Barnes had written a grief memoir without the air ballooning - 'The Sin of Height' and 'On the Level' - that clogs up the first two thirds of this very short book. I almost put the book down. I'm truly grateful I didn't.
The third section, 'Loss of Depth', is the most truthful silent scream of grief, written in the most beautiful eloquent words, I've ever read. Barnes questions, examines, and thinks about grief in a way you can only understand if you know that grief is unimagina
Jan 05, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: julian-barnes
You put together two people who have not been put together before. Sometimes it is like that first attempt to harness a hydrogen balloon to a fire balloon: do you prefer crash and burn, or burn and crash? But sometimes it works, and something new is made, and the world is changed. 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 ...more
Feb 19, 2019 rated it liked it
At first, the unsuspecting reader is led by the nose by Barnes. Part 1 is an entertaining exposé about some 19th-century balloonists, each and every one of them eccentric madmen who risk their lives by wanting to shoot up themselves, and to enter the domain of God. He also focuses on the first applications of aerial photography, as an attempt to capture the "truth from above". Part 2 also takes place in the 19th century (definitely Barnes’ most beloved age), and here the author puts the relation ...more
Apr 10, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book went from a little boring, to a little confusing to absolutely engaging in the space of 137 pages. I love Julian Barnes' writing and open heart, but admittedly, I worried for the first half that I wouldn't find those qualities in Levels of Life.

What I picked up as an ode to his late wife and memoir on grief started as a brief history on European balloon aeronauts (boring) and Sarah Burnhart (confusing). Truly, it was only his elegant writing that kept me going.

Then, in the final third,
Nov 14, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
A unique book comprising three parts. The first two parts reference early pioneers in the field of ballooning, and fictionalises moments from their lives and loves. The final section is a searing description of the loss and grief occasioned by the death of Barnes wife. What ties it together is the imagery of ballooning, exhilarating yet dangerous, exciting yet unnerving, almost directionless - and the parallels to life with a significant other, seen through the lense of loss.

A powerful, personal
Jul 31, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
“Writers believe in the patterns their words make, which they hope and trust add up to ideas, to stories, to truths.” But what happens when grief destroys all patterns and then goes one step further…to destroy the belief that any pattern exists? Then, Julian Barnes implies, it is up to the writer to go in search for them for his very salvation.

Levels of Life is a heartbreakingly personal meditation on the unrelenting grief of an uxorious husband – Julian Barnes himself -- upon the rather sudden
Punya Gupta
Jan 19, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: wehmut, my-favourites
"There is a German word, Sehnsucht, which has no English equivalent, it means 'the longing for something'. It has Romantic and mystical connotations. C.S. Lewis defined it as the 'inconsolable longing' in the human heart for 'we know not what'. The longing for something - or, in our case, for someone."

Julian Barnes. *sigh*

I'm at a loss of words to say how this book made me feel and all I can come up with is the cliché, I'm at a loss of words.

This is the most exquisite and unique book I've ever r
Andrew Smith
Dec 12, 2014 rated it did not like it
Shelves: not-finished
March 2016 Update: I did give it another go, but didn't get a lot further. I still feel as though I'm missing something, that the magic of the second half of the book has passed me by - but the reality is that I just didn't manage to drag myself through it. It was too intense and it just didn't grab me. But hey, that's reading for you.

I've given up on this one I'm afraid. Having completed one third of the book I was still reading about the history of ball
Jul 08, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favourites, best-2014
Wonderful! Brilliant! Maybe those who haven't been grief-struck will not fully understand or appreciate this book, but those who have, will identify the pain they experienced in the lines of this book (as I did). An expression of grief, the essay in the third part can be understood as a very eloquent, yet not conventional, love declaration, framed exquisitely by the meaning and history of height, "ballooning", depth and photography. I thought no other book written by Barnes will top ”Sense of an ...more
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Julian Patrick Barnes is a contemporary English writer of postmodernism in literature. He has been shortlisted three times for the Man Booker Prize - Flaubert's Parrot (1984), England, England (1998), and Arthur & George (2005), and won the prize for The Sense of an Ending (2011). He has written crime fiction under the pseudonym Dan Kavanagh.

Following an education at the City of London School and

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“ You put together two people who have not been put together before. Sometimes it is like that first attempt to harness a hydrogen balloon to a fire balloon: do you prefer crash and burn, or burn and crash?
But sometimes it works, and something new is made, and the world is changed. 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.”
“Every love story is a potential grief story.” 80 likes
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