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Review: Levels of Life by Julian Barnes

This is a very slight book, just three chapters long, most of which I read a few weeks ago, on a journey to London and back.   I’ve only just got round to blogging about it.

Now this is a deceptive opening paragraph.  But I’m finding it impossible to find a beginning to do justice, so it will have to do.

For a start, although it is physically slight, it takes you on an incredible journey.  And you might conclude from the fact that I read most of the book in just under two hours that maybe I ran out of time, or out of interest. But neither of these is true.  I had to stop reading because I was on a train and it made me cry.

And waiting weeks?  What’s that all about?  Surely if it were worth writing about, I’d have done it sooner.  But however long I waited, what I wrote would be inadequate.  So I have put it off and put it off.

The book was written by Julian Barnes about the death of his wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh.  I knew that before I started, so I was unprepared for the way in which it actually begins, which is with a mini essay about pioneering hot air balloonists.  Being a contemporary of Ian McEwan, Barnes must have known that to use the image of a hot air balloon would be an invitation to comparison against one of the most famous and astonishing beginnings of all time: the hot air balloon accident scene of McEwan’s Enduring Love,

(Now I have to confess here that I never actually finished Enduring Love.  I was profoundly disappointed that it seemed to slow up so much after such a brilliant beginning in those days.  I was quick to judge and give up on books in those days, my early twenties.)

In bold contrast, the opening chapter of Levels of Life is completely different from the tense, attention grabbing beginning to Enduring Love.  It’s slow, meandering, full of characters who are delicately and tenuously linked.   It’s set in the nineteenth century, is called “The Sin of Height” and includes: a love affair between an actress and an adventurer; the dangers of early ballooning; and discoveries in early photography.

The middle chapter is called “On the Level”.  We find out what happened to the actress and the adventurer.  We read about heartbreak, which makes us think about the way real life is messy.  Unlike the fictional act of desiring someone, which leads to the rush of a happy ending, or the dramatic tragedy of loss, in real life, there is just as likely a mere petering out, a nothingness, a slow ebbing sadness.

Now you are half way through the book.  You look again at the opening sentence, which goes: “You put two things that have not been put together before.  And the world is changed.” You think you have understood.  You work out that this book is a metaphor.   It is a clever, distant metaphor, about the sadness of a partner’s loss.  And then you turn the page and it turns into a different book.

Chapter Three is called “The Loss of Depth” and begins by chronicling in a single paragraph the narrative of Barnes and Kavanagh’s first meeting, their thirty year marriage, and then Kavanagh’s death.

Within pages, it moves away from fact, description, an emotionally tentative description of society’s reaction to grief, towards a precise, angry, tender mapping out of Barnes’ own grief process.

I recognise almost straightaway the pattern of grief.  I recognise that we are bad at grief and don’t know what to say.  Grief puts you outside society.   One evening with friends, Barnes is ignored when he mentions his dead wife’s name, not once, but three times.  This never happened to me, but this is when, on the journey up on the train, I first stop reading.  I remember the loneliness of being on the outside of society, and I think, we should not be a society where we let people feel like that.  But we are.

Barnes examines his feelings towards his wife, towards grief, towards loss, towards memory.  He talks about the physicality of the “impact” and “shock” of grief using the metaphor of the ugly rupturing of one’s entire set of internal organs upon hitting the ground after falling from a great height.  He moves to talking about recovery, but without any hint of sentimentality, without any sheen of false positivity.

At the end, Barnes talks of the dreams he has of his wife.  He talks of the ending of these dreams.  And I don’t want to give away the way in which the dreams end, because that is the ending of the book, the conclusion towards which the ideas have been driving.

The end reminded me of something about my husband.  When I had his headstone made up, I didn’t proof read it properly. I wasn’t in the right frame of mind.  The writing on the stone ended up giving him an extra five days.   I used to imagine that we could have those five days back and wonder whereabouts in my life I would put them.  They used to revolve around him coming back so that he could see his children at various points.  And I would run through these days and imagine what would be in them.  But each time I came to the same conclusion.  I realised that if I were given the choice, I could not do it.  I could not bear the imminence of goodbye again, not for me, not for him.  The imminence of goodbye was the worst thing, worse than the pain of afterwards.  Imagining having to go through it all again, I just couldn’t do it.  And so I was reminded when I read about Barnes’ goodbye.

It’s a sad, peaceful end.  Although of course, it is not really the end.  Because we know, as we have been told, that this is real life, in which this grief will never really be concluded.



  1. I love Julian Barnes. His ‘Sense of an Ending’ is one of the best recent reads. Time will tell if I can allow it to be memorable. I hadn’t heard of this one so, again, thanks to you I will be adding to my reading pile. Great review, Denise.

    • I’m looking forward to Sense of an Ending, and looking forward even more now you’ve recommended it too. I think it makes sense to read it next… although my friend Jane looked at the pile of books I passed on to her and said I did seem to read a lot of miserable books… so I will go onto one of her recommendations after that.

  2. I’m really sorry to hear about your husband. I think we do find it hard to talk about grief and death and the bad things that happen in our lives. But when we do talk about these things it always makes them feel lighter, so we do ourselves and our loved ones a disservice by brushing them under the carpet.

    Really great book review. I think I’d ball my eyes out too.

    • Hi, Rachel.
      Funny thing is it was quite a long time ago that my husband died and I, as you say, ended up brushing my feelings under my own carpet. I never thought I would have them revived again. Eg I read The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion and although I understood what she was talking about, I wasn’t moved by it. But Levels of Life was so much more powerful.

  3. It’s on my list. I often go right to my library web site after reading something you or Jenny have recommended and I immediately request a copy–then all I have to do is go the library, and it’s sitting on a magic shelf with my name on it. Truly, that’s how it works.

    It hasn’t always been this way — that we, as a society, are “bad at grief.” Actually, when I read history, it seems to be relatively new (post WWII), this preoccupation with pretending that life is meant to be all rosy, that sad things only happen to people who deserve sadness, and that anyone who isn’t giddy with happiness ought to be silenced or shunned. It seems to me to indicate that we are not evolving, but rather devolving, in our ability to feel and demonstrate empathy. I wonder if it isn’t a kind of wholesale cultural denial of the reality of human mortality. People who don’t want to acknowledge the grief of others, seem to me to be saying, “Please, just allow me to pretend that death won’t take my loved ones or my life.”

    That’s an amazing story of the “five days.”

    • Yes, I think it is indicative of our sanitised culture too. And also that we can have control these days of *almost* everything. It gives us the illusion that those of us who are in messy situation are not the way it should be. As you say, “sad things only happen to people who deserve sadness.” That is a very good point.

      Julian Barnes was so *angry* in his book. I was too young and unsure of myself at the time to be angry. Someone on the Amazon review site commented negatively on this. I was sad generally to see the negative views on the Amazon site in response to his anger and sadness. But then, I was like that once. I was like that when I stopped reading Enduring Love because I judged and didn’t get on with the “weirdness” of one of the characters.

      Thank you for understanding about the five days.

      • I’m really looking forward to reading it. Sounds like it will challenge me. I tend to want to “nice” every emotion up, including my anger. But there are some things that I really ought to be enraged about.

        I’m interested in finding people who can write skillfully and eloquently about anger. There were already 20 holds on this book ahead of me (at the library), so obviously you’re not the only one who thinks it’s worth reading.

      • And I really do understand about the 5 days — I’ve dealt with a crazy amount of death and tragedy in my life; and that’s just the kind of thing (five extra days on the stone) that would preoccupy my thoughts for a long, long time. (Actually, it’s not even my story, but I’m already preoccupied with it).

  4. Denise, I think those of us who live on a deeper level, experience a more in-depth (difficult) life. I was so saddened about the death of your husband and more so about the five days extra you put on the gravestone.

    Have you seen the movie “A-I” by Steven Spielberg? It is about a boy who has yet one more day to spend with his mother.(After she has died) She bakes him a cake for his birthday, which she had never done, and she devotes the entire day to being totally with him. With the “contract” that after this day is finished, he has to let her go.

    Your story reminded me of this. Five days. How would you have allocated them? Very sad.

    I have had an in-depth life too. But, I feel, we who seek a higher meaning, have more to give, feel life on a richer level and ultimately have a better life.

    • Thanks for your comment. I see life as most of the time everyday life now. But sometimes, when we are shaken into crisis, by having someone become ill, or die, we go into that “other level” of depth where the every day life no longer seems real or relevant. This book took me back to that other level.

      I think either people forget or haven’t been to that other level.

      I was incensed by an Amazon review (not difficult I know) which criticised Julian Barnes for being “self-indulgent” and gave him two stars on this account. Honestly!

      I’ve just been to read the AI reviews and it’s interesting that this seems to polarise people too – either they find it intensely moving, or just plain slow. It’s not something I would have gone for, but I will be putting it on my Lovefilm list.

      Thanks again for your insights.

  5. “I remember the loneliness of being left on the outside of society”. So many powerful emotions in this post Denise, so beautifully and touchingly written. We go through the motions yet we know that life will never be the same again.
    Reading Hollis’s comment above I had to say that I watched A-I with my now ex-husband at the cinema at a time when our marriage was heading for it’s final breakdown. That film broke my heart and to this day I cry when I remember it and can’t bear to think of it. We spent the rest of the night in silence, knowing that we (my family) were all facing having to let go and say goodbye.
    You really touched me as you shared about those ‘lost’ five days you imagined you might have had with your husband. I am truly sorry for your loss but thank you for your courage in sharing your very personal emotions as you were able, at last, to write this marvellous book review.

    • That really brought me up short, thinking about your marriage. Goodbyes are so sad and ending a marriage brings about grief too

      Last times are so sad and I feel that the things associated with last times are marked forever for me. As if I am somehow fixing my negative feelings onto them to try to let them go and make sense of them.

      Thank you for appreciating what I wrote. It was nice to have people around to share the feelings I went through when I read this book.

      Btw I hope you have been able to spend a little time on your book these last few days?

      • Grief certainly does take many forms. Reading your post made me think of all the ‘last times’ in my life and that is why I could really resonate with you and what you have been through. I could see your tears as you sat on that train trying to read this book and the way you described this really moved me.
        As for writing my book, well, I am resolved Denise, very resolved to press on. Each day I’ve intended to write the next chapter but family events have conspired against me (that’s no excuse I hear you say??!!). However, I am mentally in a much better place to continue with it and once I jump back there will be no stopping me. Distractions will never go away (as we both know) so I just have to make the time no matter what, but thank you for asking 🙂

  6. Oh that story about your husband and the extra five days is heart-wrenching. I didn’t know you’d lost him and I send hugs and much sympathy. I expect grief sleeps but never leaves for good. I am a huge fan of Julian Barnes and own a copy of this which I’ve yet to read. Your lovely review certainly puts it back on my bedside table.

    • It certainly doesn’t begin in a conventionally gripping way, and if I’d just picked this up cold and read the first few pages without having read about it previously, I’m not sure I’d have carried on.

      As I was describing to someone else, grief does sleep, and then it is as if this happy world is normal and the other fades. But when that world reaches out and touches you again, you have this realisation that the world of grief is ultimately the real one.

      I’m back in happy normal world at the moment, but aware that the other exists.

      Thanks for your thoughts.

  7. I’m reading it now. It’s stunning. And terrifying. I’ve suffered a lot of grief in my life, but I know I cannot be prepared, I cannot prepare myself for the eventuality that my love story might turn into a grief story. I’ve been married 20 years, to a man 20 years older than I, whom I love now even more than ever. Reading this book is beautiful, but painful. It’s one of the most brilliant essays on grief that I’ve ever read, ever.

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