Picture a balloon traveling across the French countryside. It is the late 1800s, so farmers, traders, children all look up as it passes. There is almost no sound, just the shape born aloft.
Two people are nestled in its wicker basket, taking photographs.
Balloons then were crude, rudderless machines, so riders had almost no control over where they were going.
It is a sunny day, and far down below a balloon-shaped shadow leans through the landscape. It turns the wheat a darker shade of tan.
What is more remarkable, Julian Barnes asks in his brief but deeply stirring new memoir, “Levels of Life,” the vessel born aloft by gas or heated air or the shadow it leaves on the landscape?
Both are potential metaphors for this book’s focus, which is grief. Five years ago, Pat Kavanaugh, Barnes’ wife of 30 years, died of a brain tumor. “I was thirty-two when we met, sixty-two when she died,” Barnes writes. “The heart of my life; the life of my heart.”
How, Barnes wonders, can his notion of life be uncoupled from the violent beautiful pleasures of love? In a series of three linked essays, he meditates on risk, passion, and loss.
He finds his way into the story through ballooning. From afar, a balloon adrift is a beautiful site. A beacon, a seeming suspension of the laws of gravity. A balloon makes the heavens nearer.
Up close, it’s madness. “A gas balloon might explode,” Barnes writes in the book’s first part, a capsule history of early ballooning. “A fire balloon, unsurprisingly, could catch fire. Every take-off and landing was hazardous.”
People did it anyway. “Levels of Life” sketches a mini-portrait of this class of explorer. It conjures Fred Burnaby, a colonel of the British army, and Sarah Bernhardt, the famous French actress.
They were not just “balloonatics’’ but probably lovers. In the book’s second section, Barnes imagines their courtship. Burnaby had loved women on several continents, but no one like her.
Bernhardt, for her part, warns him she is not a conventional woman. He thrills to the risk and falls madly in love. “I shall always go where danger and adventure call,” Barnes has him say. And of course she breaks his heart.
Barnes juxtaposes this sad tale with one of another relationship.
Félix Tournachon was an early French balloonist. He was also a playboy, a portrait photographer, and a memoirist. He married young to an even younger woman from a Protestant bourgeoisie family. They stayed together the rest of their lives — she sticking by him while he built bigger and bigger balloons, he by her when she fell so ill he had to give up his sky-bound dreams to care for her.
“Félix Tournachon was an uxorious man,” Barnes writes. And then, much later in the book, he rescues the word from its common misinterpretation. “It describes — and always will, whatever future dictionaries may permit — a man who loves his wife.”
Barnes clearly adored his own, and while a full portrait of their marriage is not presented here, one infers it was a mixture of the two relationships he presents: the altitude of one, the longitude of the other.
There is a great dignity in how little Barnes reveals about his own life in “Levels of Life,” and how late it becomes a study of grief — about two-thirds through this slim book in the third and final section. He does not, ever, use his wife’s name.
Still, the metaphoric intensity of what has come before gives Barnes’s account of his grief a fierce and fiery kind of momentum. Within a few pages it is aloft.
The way he describes mourning bears a strong resemblance to C.S. Lewis’s “A Grief Observed.” “No one ever told me grief felt so like fear,” Lewis wrote, more than 50 years ago. “The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning.”
Barnes captures all these textures and more with the few anecdotes he does tell of his own experience. Here is the loneliness of realizing friends’ grieving cannot illuminate your own. Here is the anger at friends who, out of kindness and fear, try not to mention the dead. Here are the suicidal fantasies.
Most of all, “Levels of Life” meditates on how disorienting it feels to live when one’s primary orienting compass is no longer there. “You ask yourself: what happiness is there in just the memory of happiness? And how in any case might that work, given that happiness has only ever consisted of something shared?”
Barnes’s way of dealing with this question is to keep his bereaved alive. He speaks to her, and occasionally – not ethereally, but in a voice to him – she speaks back. He talks to friends who will call up memories.
In his 1986 novel, “Staring at the Sun,” Barnes told the story of an everyday woman from the country in England. Looking back on her life, she decides everyone should have a private seven wonders of the world.
“Being Loved,” she surmises, would be the second. “How few of these wonders she had been aware of at the time.” “Levels of Life” is the account of a man who was aware of what he had. It is the elegant way he is looking back, mourning that happiness, knowing — painfully — it is the shadow he is looking back on, not the balloon itself.
John Freeman is the author of “How to Read a Novelist,” forthcoming in October from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.