Sarah Manguso at The New York Times:
Julian Barnes has disregarded the conventional boundaries between literary genres for as long as he’s been publishing books. So it should come as no surprise that “Levels of Life,” a putative grief memoir about the loss of his wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh, is part history, part meditative essay and part fictionalized biography. The pieces combine to form a fascinating discourse on love and sorrow.
Each of the three essays — “The Sin of Height,” “On the Level” and “The Loss of Depth” — begins with the same concept: that of putting together “two things that have not been put together before.” In the first essay, the 19th-century photographer and inventor Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, later known simply as Nadar, combines photography and aeronautics as the first aerial photographer. In the second essay, Barnes narrates an imaginary affair between the actress Sarah Bernhardt and Fred Burnaby, an English traveler and adventurer. In the third essay, love unites Barnes and his wife — and persists even after Kavanagh’s death. A series of coincidences links the three essays: Burnaby and Bernhardt also rode in balloons; Nadar photographed Bernhardt several times; Nadar was a devoted husband despite his many affairs, and he nursed his wife in her last illness, as Barnes nursed his.