Julian Barne's 'Levels of Life' critiqued

Love and the Red Balloon by Jamie Stokes

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‘Love and Other Disasters’ is our annual Museums at Night event, an opportunity to explore hundreds of Britain’s best cultural institutions after hours. Our event will be a chance to hear readings of short extracts from favourite tales of love, both fiction and non-fiction, poetry or prose. Our interns and staff will be blogging about the pieces they will read out; if you would like to volunteer to read something, or have a piece read out for you, get in touch before Friday (see details below). In this piece, Jamie Stokes, former library intern, discusses one of his favourite books about being in love, from which he would read an extract on Friday night…if only he were here.

There’s one place I’d like to be tonight. It isn’t on a Caribbean cruise with cocktails on deck. It isn’t in Stockholm, receiving the Nobel Prize for inventing a device to instantly transform guns and bombs into peanut-butter-and-happiness ice cream, thus ending all war in one delicious, unifying swoop (one day…). It isn’t even to be lost in my favourite book. No – if I could be anywhere this Friday, it would be at my home away from home, Gladstone’s Library, hanging out with some of my favourite people at the Museums at Night event.

The last comparable event I attended at the Library was back in October, on an evening as grave as Gladstone’s face – the All Hallows Gothic Night, where amongst others I read a couple of creepy passages from a couple of creepy books. Now, I understand, the theme is slightly more romantic, and I’ve been thinking about which of the library’s books I would excerpt if I weren’t 124 miles away trying not to think about the fun being had without me.

I first read Levels of Life by Julian Barnes while I happened to be living at Gladstone’s Library as an intern, struggling to finish a dissertation. To quote from the blurb: ‘Julian Barnes’s new book is about ballooning, photography, love and grief’. It was the ballooning part I picked it up for, but it’s the love and grief bit that sticks with me.

A beautiful, roundabout way of looking at bereavement from his wife and literary agent, Pat Kavanagh, Levels of Life is exactly what it says on the tin (…cover). Life and love are explored in a multilayered way – through Barnes’s relationship with his wife, through the relationships of other people with each other, and through the relationships of different people with the obviously human art of photography and the surprisingly human art of floating around in a bloody great balloon. Particularly fascinating is an examination of Sarah Bernhardt and the various men in her life, and it is from this area that I would extract, focussing on a particular story told about a parrot and a monkey which lived in the same cage in Bernhardt’s studio. The monkey would terrorise the parrot, tearing its feathers out and basically harassing it half to death. Not terribly romantic, you might think – but, as it turns out, the monkey and the parrot were once separated. The parrot ‘nearly died of grief’. And so they were reunited, and left to the furore of their relationship. In the grand scheme of things this story isn’t much, perhaps – but as a surprising example of the bizarre and terrifying ways in which love can manifest, it’s not half bad.

Really though, if we’re going to be romantic, I’d read anything at all – so long as it meant I could be at the Library, with my friends, drinking gin and tonic and having a good time.

Tickets for our Museums at Night event, ‘Love and Other Disasters’, on Friday 16 May at 10pm. are £5 each, and can be purchased in person at Reception, or by calling 01244 532 350.If you would like to do a reading at the event, or provide an extract to be read out on your behalf please email louisa.yates@gladlib.org to be added to the list.