Julian Barnes (and Van Loon)

Levels of Life by Julian Barnes

My father owned a book called Van Loon’s Lives originally published in 1942 and it was one of my early reading experiences.  In  it the author invites pairs of famous people for dinner.  It didn’t matter if the guests lived in different centuries, this was a beautiful fantasy where a conversation could be constructed between very different people. Think of Sir Thomas More with Erasmus, Beethoven with Napoleon,  Mozart with Hans Andersen , Plato and Confucius, Chopin with Emily Dickinson.  I don’t know how the book would fare these days but for me it was a wonderful potted introduction to famous people in history. It’s back on my reading list after all these years.

I was reading a 1954 reprint of the book.   The endpapers show the supposed setting for the dinners.

Van loons lives

It was brought back to my mind when I started reading Julian Barnes’ “Levels of Life”.  As he started telling me about the early experiments with ballooning I found myself thinking I like this bloke.  I’d like to be at a dinner party where he is a guest. And hence Van Loon’s Lives !

I picked this book to read as I had so enjoyed his “Sense of an Ending”.  I get such a feeling of calm from his writings.

Levels of Life

But it’s an unusual book. Of just 118 pages I could call it a pot-pourri.  It starts off with stories of the early experiments with ballooning, the early adventurers escaping from the pull of the earth and an 1858 attempt at aerial photography.  We also learn a lot about the actress Sarah Bernhardt which you possibly hadn’t heard before, and then it moves on to his grief at the death of his beloved wife, Pat Kavanagh. For someone who normally lives a very private life, he is very revealing about his loss and its effect on his life.

At one stage his attitude to Death is “ It’s just the Universe doing its stuff.”  I like that.  It stacks up well against the usual condolences which are proffered. .  The Universe doing its stuff.  When we disintegrate do we break down into atoms or something smaller like an electron or a proton ?  I can visualize all my little bits and pieces floating around the Universe and hopefully one day in the distant future one of them will be re-cycled and become a part of a brilliant scientist or artist, writer or singer, pianist or doctor, someone who contributes strongly to their community.  Note that I didn’t include a Member of Parliament!

He appears to have no dependants, no going out each day to a regular job- is he alone too much with his grief ?  Would he have coped differently with  a fixed income and three children at school  That word LOVE needs a lot of consideration.  I felt there was so much dependency there,  Where is the borderline between Love and Dependency ?

Make sure you know the dictionary definition of uxurious before you start the book – excessively fond of your wife. .  He has a thing about people who don’t use the same meaning as he does, but then again he was a lexicographer for a while.

The copy of the book which I have read was published by Jonathan Cape.  I found it strange that it didn’t contain a list of the author’s previous publications.  When I enjoy a book one of the first things I do is go to the front of the book to find out what else he/she has published.

Since finishing the book a week or so ago I am still picking it up and opening it at random to read a paragraph or too.  I need to re-read the whole book. In the meantime, look what I found in Van Loon’s Lives – a lovely old bookmark.   British Commonwealth Day began in 1958, replacing Empire Day.

Commonwealth Day Bookmark

Life After Life – Kate Atkinson – A Few Thoughts


Have you ever said to yourself “There but for the Grace of God go I” . Time and again you read or hear of incidents in which you could possibly have been involved had you passed through some point five minutes earlier, or five minutes later.  This idea crops up time and again in Kate Atkinson’s book “Life After Life”

The blurb on the back of the book says “What if you had the chance to live your life again and again until you finally got it right ?”

That’s not quite  how I saw the book.  For one thing I don’t think there is any “right” life   Life is just what happens depending on the choices you make, whether they are conscious choices or just plain chance. The blurb is saying that the “right” life is living as long as possible, bypassing all the side branches which end in death.

The birth of the main character Ursula has some variations interspersed through the book, but the story doesn’t go right back to the time of birth in 1910  for each life but merely backtracks to where the side track branched off .  It then continues until a new ending-in-death side track appears. But there is plenty of overlap at each re-start so that you know exactly where you are in the “right  life”.  I thoroughly enjoyed this form of tale telling.  There are plenty of other better written blogs than mine which will practically tell you the whole story from go to whoa but I prefer not to know too much detail before I start a book.

I thoroughly enjoyed Life After Life though at times it made me terribly depressed and I began to dread yet  another death.   So much death in a book reminded me of “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak,  a book where Death is a main character, yet I am only left with fond memories of that book.

The only part of the book where I did get bored was the European section !

With this book I’ve added a new word to my vocabulary – palimpsest – washing the manuscript page clean so that it can be used again.  And that makes me think of a writing slate I had as a child – so easy to wipe it clean to write on it again.


Does your reading style change as you progress through a book ? Mine usually does. To begin with a few pages are read to dip the toes in the water, then a more regular group of pages are read in each reading.  As time goes on and the characters and the storyline are more familiar – they’ve  become old friends –  more pages are read at a faster speed in each sitting until you are practically gulping down the book