Grief Detained

'Levels of Life'

Julian Barnes
Knopf, 128 pp., $22.95

Levels of Life consists of an essay, “The Sin of Height” (twenty-eight pages), a story of sorts,  “On the Level” (thirty-six pages), and an elegy, “The Loss of Depth” (fifty-seven pages). The essay is an account of the nineteenth-century phase of hot-air ballooning, exemplified by Colonel Fred Burnaby of the Royal Horse Guards, who took off from the Dover Gasworks on March 23, 1882, and landed halfway between Dieppe and Neufchâtel; Sarah Bernhardt, who took off from the center of Paris in 1878 and landed near Emerainville in the département of Seine-et-Marne; and Félix Tournachon, better known later as the great photographer Nadar, who took off from the Champ de Mars in Paris on October 18, 1863 and crash-landed near Hanover. The main point of this essay is to introduce motifs of earth and sky, up and down, ballooning as vehicle of freedom, and the moral emblem of our looking at ourselves from afar, “with increasing truth.”

The first sentences of the essay read: “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...

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About the Author

Denis Donoghue holds the Henry James Chair in English and American Letters at New York University. His most recent book is Irish Essays (2011).