Levels of Life (Anglais) Relié – 4 avril 2013
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ON THE LEVEL
You put together two things that have not been put together before; and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Pilâtre de Rozier, the first man to ascend in a fire balloon, also planned to be the first to fly the Channel from France to England. To this end he constructed a new kind of aerostat, with a hydrogen balloon on top, to give greater lift, and a fire balloon beneath, to give better control. He put these two things together, and on the 15th of June 1785, when the winds seemed favourable, he made his ascent from the Pas-de-Calais. The brave new contraption rose swiftly, but before it had even reached the coastline, flame appeared at the top of the hydrogen balloon, and the whole, hopeful aerostat, now looking to one observer like a heavenly gas lamp, fell to earth, killing both pilot and co-pilot.
You put together two people who have not been put together before; and sometimes the world is changed, sometimes not. They may crash and burn, or burn and crash. But sometimes, something new is made, and then the world is changed. Together, in that first exaltation, that first roaring sense of uplift, they are greater than their two separate selves. Together, they see further, and they see more clearly.
Of course, love may not be evenly matched; perhaps it rarely is. To put it another way: how did those besieged Parisians of 1870-71 get replies to their letters? You can fly a balloon out from the Place St.-Pierre and assume it will land somewhere useful; but you can hardly expect the winds, however patriotic, to blow it back to Montmartre on a return flight. Various stratagems were proposed: for example, placing the return correspondence in large metal globes and floating them downstream into the city, there to be caught in nets. Pigeon post was a more obvious idea, and a Batignolles pigeon fancier put his dovecote at the authorities’ disposal: a basket of birds might be flown out with each siege balloon, and return bearing letters. But compare the freight capacity of a balloon and a pigeon, and imagine the weight of disappointment. According to Nadar, the solution came from an engineer who worked in sugar manufacture. Letters intended for Paris were to be written in a clear hand, on one side of the paper, with the recipient’s address at the top. Then, at the collecting station, hundreds of them would be laid side by side on a large screen and photographed. The image would be micrographically reduced, flown into Paris by carrier pigeon, and enlarged back to readable size. The revived letters were then put into envelopes and delivered to their addressees. It was better than nothing; indeed, it was a technical triumph. But imagine a pair of lovers, one able to write privately and at length on both sides of the page, and hide the tenderest words in an envelope; the other constrained by brevity and the knowledge that private feelings might be publicly inspected by photographers and postmen. Although—isn’t that how love sometimes feels, and works?
Sarah Bernhardt was photographed by Nadar—first the father, later the son—throughout her life. Her first session took place when she was about twenty, at the time Félix Tournachon was also involved in another tumultuous, if briefer, career: that of The Giant. Sarah is not yet Divine—she is unknown, aspiring; yet the portraits already show her a star.
She is simply posed, wrapped in a velvet cloak, or an enveloping shawl. Her shoulders are bare; she wears no jewellery except a small pair of cameo earrings; her hair is virtually undressed. So is she: there is more than a hint that she wears little beneath that cloak, that shawl. Her expression is withholding, and thus alluring. She is, of course, very beautiful, perhaps more so to the modern eye than at the time. She seems to embody truthfulness, theatricality and mystery—and make those abstractions compatible. Nadar also took a nude photograph which some claim is of her. It shows a woman, naked to the waist, peek-a-booing with one eye from behind a spread fan. Whatever the case, the portraits of Sarah cloaked and shawled are decidedly more erotic.
Scarcely five feet tall, she was not considered the right size for an actress; also, too pale and too thin. She seemed impulsive and natural in both life and art; she broke theatrical rules, often turning upstage to deliver a speech. She slept with all her leading men. She loved fame and self-publicity—or, as Henry James silkily put it, she was “a figure so admirably suited for conspicuity.” One critic compared her successively to a Russian princess, a Byzantine empress and a Muscat begum, before concluding: “Above all, she is as Slav as one can be. She is much more Slav than all the Slavs I have ever met.” In her early twenties she had an illegitimate son, whom she took everywhere with her, heedless of disapproval. She was Jewish in a largely anti-Semitic France, while in Catholic Montreal they stoned her carriage. She was brave and doughty.
Naturally, she had enemies. Her success, her sex, her racial origin and her bohemian extravagance reminded the puritanical why actors used to be buried in unhallowed ground. And over the decades her acting style, once so original, inevitably dated, since naturalness onstage is just as much an artifice as naturalism in the novel. If the magic always worked for some—Ellen Terry called her “transparent as an azalea” and compared her stage presence to “smoke from a burning paper”—others were less kind. Turgenev, though a Francophile and himself a dramatist, found her “false, cold, affected,” and condemned her “repulsive Parisian chic.”
Fred Burnaby was often described as bohemian. His official biographer wrote that he lived “entirely aloof, absolutely regardless of conventionalities.” And he had known the exoticism which Bernhardt merely appropriated. A traveller might bring reports back to Paris from afar; a playwright would pillage them for themes and effects; then a designer and costumier would perfect the illusion around her. Burnaby had been that traveller: he had gone deep into Russia, across Asia Minor and the Middle East, up the Nile. He had crossed Fashoda country, where both sexes went naked and dyed their hair bright yellow. Stories that adhered to him often featured Circassian girls, gypsy dancers and pretty Kirghiz widows.
He claimed descent from Edward I, the king known as Longshanks, and displayed virtues of courage and truth-speaking which the English imagine unique to themselves. Yet there was something unsettling about him. His father was said to be “melancholy as the padge-owl that hooted in his park,” and Fred, though vigorous and extrovert, inherited this trait. He was enormously strong, yet frequently ill, tormented by liver and stomach pains; “gastric catarrh” once drove him to a foreign spa. And though “very popular in London and Paris,” and a member of the Prince of Wales’s circle, he was described by the Dictionary of National Biography as living “much alone.”
The conventional accept and are frequently charmed by a certain unconventionality; Burnaby seems to have exceeded that limit. One of his devoted friends called him “the most slovenly rascal that ever lived,” who sat “like a sack of corn on a horse.” He was held to be foreign-looking, with “oriental features” and a Mephistophelean smile. The DNB called his looks “Jewish and Italian,” noting that his “unEnglish” appearance “led him to resist attempts to procure portraits of him.”
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-fracturing 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.
So why do we constantly aspire to love? Because love is the meeting point of truth and magic. Truth, as in photography; magic, as in ballooning.
Revue de presse
"This is 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)
"It's an unrestrained, affecting piece of writing, raw and honest and more truthful for its dignity and artistry... Anyone who has loved and suffered loss, or just suffered, should read this book, and re-read it, and re-read it." (Martin Fletcher Independent)
"Levels of Life is both a supremely crafted artefact and a desolating guidebook to the land of loss." (John Carey Sunday Times)
"While one might expect a Barnes book to impress, delight, move, disconcert or amuse, the last thing for which his work prepares us is the blast of paralysingly direct emotion that concludes Levels of Life." (Tim Martin Daily Telegraph)
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I would prefer not to give this a 'star-rating' as it surely cannot be defined as 'I love it', 'It's OK' etc., but Amazon's review system doesn't allow for the unrated or unrateable. It is undoubtedly skilfully written and moving in parts. It is, and I'm sorry to say it, also self-indulgent - while accepting that other people have undoubtedly undergone grief, Barnes writes as if he is the first to truly experience and understand it. It also seemed strange that this man in his sixties writes as if he is encountering grief for the first time in his life. I suspect he is subtly making a case for the grief of an uxorious husband (he uses the word uxorious himself, several times) being greater than other griefs.
I would, I suspect, have found this deeply moving had it been a letter from a close friend, but its intimacy is too intense - it left me with an uncomfortable sense of voyeurism. He criticises, in ways that I'm sure would enable them to recognise themselves, his friends' attempts to console him with clichéd expressions of condolence and encouragement. Have we not all felt that? But have we not all understood the genuine warmth behind these clichés and forgiven the clumsiness? Indeed, have we not all been as clumsy when the situation was reversed? But I think it is his musing on the possibility of his own suicide, a future he does not wholly rule out, that left me feeling I had read a private letter addressed to someone else.
We will all react differently to this book and for some it may provide comfort to know that the feelings we feel are not unique to us. I wish I could have written an uncritical review of this - I considered not posting a review at all, but it seems to me that some people will be misled by the publisher's blurb, as I was, and find themselves reading not a novel about 'ballooning, photography, love and grief' but an essay on Barnes' personal road through his own grief - a road it seems he is still travelling.
The first two parts, mainly about ballooning with a possibly apocryphal story about Sarah Bernhardt and one of her lovers, are vintage Barnes work. Swift, spare, and fascinating.
The third part is Barnes' grief narrative, about the death of his wife and about his grief. Lots of writers have written beautiful grief narratives - Alan Paton, CS Lewis, Joan Didion and Joyce Carol Oates among them. Each of these writers, while sharing the experience of grieving a spouse, comes up with a work wholly characteristic of themselves and deeply moving. Writers write - that's how they deal with experience. CS Lewis tried to figure out how death and loss fits in with his God, Alan Paton concentrated on the wonderful nature of his wife, Joan Didion on the unbelievability and starkness of grief, and Joyce Carol Oates wrote a very long and discursive day by day account of her grief and gradual recovery, with some guilt thrown in. Characteristic each one of them.
Griefs are similar (the world indifferent to the tragedy, the misery of life without the loved one, the unfamiliarity of familiar experiences, the inability to tell stories to the loved one, the unfairness and unfathomability of it all) but personal as well. Just as his predecessors were true to their writerly selves, Barnes is his usual spare, perfectly phrased and devastating self in this book.
If you've lost a spouse you'll recognize his experience and enjoy his superb way of describing it. If not, take this as a report from a country you may well visit someday. Worth reading in either case, with the bonus pleasure of figuring out how the first two narratives connect to the third.
"The Sin of Height" skims the highlights of the early attempts to get airborne. We're in the late 19th Century and Barnes compares and contrasts the efforts of Colonel Fred Burnaby and Felix Tournachon with the science and art of ballooning. Barnes is fascinated by the view from above and the view and attitude of those on the ground--how both perspectives were changed by photography in the name of art and understanding. Getting airborne changed the human perspective. At end of this section, Barnes leaps ahead a century to astronaut William Anders, circling the moon on Christmas Eve in 1968 and photographing the Earth, for the first time, with the moon in the foreground. "To look at ourselves from afar, to make the subjective suddenly objective: this gives us psychic shock," he writes. But where is Barnes going with all of this?
Actress and ballooning enthusiast Sarah Bernhardt moves front and center in the second section, "On the Level," in which Barnes explores the relationship/courtship between Bernhardt and Fred Burnaby. Barnes imagines their verbal dance, their circling each other--and the impact on Burnaby when Bernhardt ultimately goes her own way. These are two very different people whose worlds have come together, or at least passing in the night.
"On the Level" reads the most like fiction but by now we are lulled into Barnes' plain storytelling style so it's easy to imagine that Burnaby's pleadings and gentle persuasions were recorded verbatim. "Madam Sarah, we are all incomplete. I am just as incomplete as you. That is why we seek another person. For completion." Later, Barnes imagines that Burnaby wondered if Bernhardt had been "on the level" with him, whether she had deceived him in any way. "No, Fred Barnaby concluded, she had been on the level. It was he who had deceived himself. But if being on the level didn't shield you from pain, maybe it was better to be up in the clouds."
Pain is the topic of the third section, "The Loss of Depth." Julian Barnes processes the loss of his wife. They had been married for 30 years when she suddenly got ill and died within a few short weeks; 37 days, to be precise. The loss was five years ago (in 2008). "I was thirty-two when we met, sixty-two when she died. The heart of my life; the life of my heart."
This section is hard to summarize. Each grieving period is unique, Barnes points out, and it seems to me that Barnes put himself up to that challenge--of detailing that grief and how it was processed. How it is still being processed. There's no uplift here, just raw pain. Grief is always looking for "new ways to prick you." Barnes weaves in the themes from the first two sections--love (of course) and yearning and gaining new perspectives from new altitudes, new attitudes and putting things in focus (or not). Clarity is as fleeting as the shadow of your balloon on the cloud below. Your journey through grief is subject to the wind, the breezes, the fates. You are not in control. You might crash. Grief may prompt you to consider managing your own mortal end. Yes, Barnes goes all the way down to the depths, contemplating self-destruction. There is no bottom, only the void.
On the other hand, if you process the emotions just right, you might also be able to float above it all and light a cigar, contemplate how you ended up here, needing to jettison some ballast and hoping to catch a northerly breeze. In fact, Barnes seems to be saying, we should always be wondering: how did I get here, floating in space?
"Levels of Life" is a brilliant book--part memoir, part reflection, part essay, part fiction and full, ironically enough, of life. And very much one of a kind.