Magazine article The Spectator

Touching the Void

Magazine article The Spectator

Touching the Void

Article excerpt

Levels of Life by Julian Barnes Cape, £10.99, pp. 117, ISBN 9780224098151 'You put together two things that have not been put together before and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.' In this slim book Julian Barnes puts not two but three things together: nonfiction, fiction and memoir. And sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

The first section is an elegant and breezy account of the early days of ballooning and the development of aerial photography.

Here are the adventurer Colonel Frederick Burnaby, the actress Sarah Bernhardt, and the photographer Felix Tournachon (otherwise known as Nadar): 'The enthusiastic English amateur, the most famous actress of her era, making a celebrity flight, and the professional balloonist'.

Barnes's second section is a fictional or, at least, conjectural account of the loveaffair between Burnaby and Bernhardt - one that left him stricken when he proposed marriage and she rejected him. She said often that she loved him, but would not promise that she would always do so. 'Shot dead, that was how he felt.'

The third section is an extraordinarily direct and moving autobiographical essay about Barnes's grief for his wife, Pat Kavanagh. They were married in 1979. In 2008 she was diagnosed with brain cancer and 37 days later she died. She was (in a chiasmus that, to my ear, uses its slickness to encapsulate, as much as to express, the emotion):

'The heart of my life; the life of my heart.'

The unavoidable question is: how do the first two things (and literary genres) relate to the third? It's a piece of writing about perspective, of course - about what you can see from the heights and the depths that you cannot see on the level - but the metaphor soon becomes muddy. And metaphor - as an instance of the writer's trick of making patterns - is, as Barnes acknowledges, of only limited use in a process that is patternless, meaningless and exactly particular to the person undergoing it. He observes the universe 'just doing its stuff'; 'life merely continuing until it merely ends'.

The first and second sections, to me, read like . . . not quite a throat-clearing, but a way of circling towards the main event, of framing it, of giving it somewhere outside Barnes's own life to anchor. I catch myself qualifying these judgments with phrases like 'to me' or 'to my ear'. There's a trace of the hesitancy a reviewer feels towards such obviously personal material, but it also seems to reflect something in the book itself. …

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