In Levels of Life, the latest work by Julian Barnes, he appropriately compares love to hot air ballooning. Both allow you to feel lighter than air, let you soar above the clouds, are exhilarating. However, with both endeavors comes the knowledge that you may, at any moment, crash and burn.
And so he opens this book with the following: “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 that doesn’t matter. The world has been changed nonetheless.” He goes on in the first two parts, The Sin of Height and On the Level, to describe three people who had ballooning adventures, their lives, their loves, their connection: Colonel Fred Burnaby, Sarah Bernhardt and Felix Tournachon. (I felt compelled to look them up after reading about them.)
“You put together two things that have not been put together before; and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.” Thus begins On the Level which describes just such stories…sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, as we can all attest.
It is part three, The Loss of Depth, in which he finally discusses the devastating death of his wife. “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 to burn and crash, or crash and burn? 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.”
There are some beautiful words in Levels of Life. I especially loved pages 34 and 35 (way too long to recreate here). I found the first two parts unbelievably interesting, poignant at times, heart wrenching at times. Unfortunately, part three, which should be the most heart wrenching I found to be too dense. All the parts are there: his grief, the way friends either avoid the subject or wear their grief on their sleeves, clichés of things getting better, easier, the loneliness. It’s all there and all deeply emotional, but it was not the part of the book that kept me reading. I know I’ll be in a minority. I know some readers may say I’m heartless. Some will say I’ve never been in that situation (which I haven’t) and when such time comes, it’ll mean more. And so it may.
But I DO know sometimes “You put together two people who have not been put together before, and sometimes the world is changed and sometimes not….But sometimes something new is made; and then the world is changed. Together, in the first exultation, that first roaring sense of uplift, they are greater than their two separate selves. Together, they see further, and they see more clerarly.”