Reviewed: Levels of Life by Julian Barnes

Little more than hot air.

Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air
Richard Holmes
William Collins, 416pp, £25

Levels of Life
Julian Barnes
Jonathan Cape, 128pp, £10.99

Ballooning is one of those B subjects – boxing and bullfighting are others – that have a galvanising effect on the desk-bound writer, providing images for description and metaphors for extension. Jorge Luis Borges was old and blind when he took a balloon ride in the Napa Valley in the early 1980s but the account of the experience shows him almost itchy with glee. Ballooning has elements of timelessness (“Flying is one of the elemental anxieties of man”) and time travel (“a voyage through the lost paradise that is the 19th century”). It enlarges human perspective, empowering us to behold the earth “from the height of the angels or of high-flying birds” – and has given prose fiction a thrilling new subject. The lighter-than-air balloon might have been “dreamed up by Montgolfier” but to sail through clouds for 90 minutes was to be dropped back into the pages of Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne and H G Wells, whose “Selenites” travelled from one part of the moon to another “in balloons similar to ours – and felt no vertigo”.

Richard Holmes, the peerless life-andtimes biographer (Shelley: the Pursuit, Dr Johnson and Mr Savage), takes a more systematic – a balloon-spotter’s – approach to ballooning, its development and significance in his beautifully illustrated new book, Falling Upwards. He is also keen to incorporate a history of impressions and anecdotes and refers often to the seemingly innumerable “classic” accounts without which his meticulous account would be sketchy and conjectural.

It all started with a breakthrough in the weighing of hydrogen against air but it was put to disparate uses and construed in a thousand ways. The book opens with three pages of “voices overheard”, a collection of poetical images and awed encomia to upperatmospheric drift, starting with Joseph Mont - golfier in 1782 (“a Cloud in a paper bag”) and ending with Wells in 1908 (“one of the supreme things possible to man”), suggesting that Borges was right to view a presentday balloon ride as a voyage through the 19th century. The long 19th century, that is – a period of roughly 12 decades that includes the French Revolution and the siege of Paris in 1870-71 but not the First World War. By then, heavier-than-air machines were in the ascendant, ushering in a more humdrum form of air travel. “The clouds cover and dissemble continents and seas,” Borges wrote. “The trajectory borders on tedium.”

Not so the hot-air, gas and party balloon ride (at least one was undertaken, with predictable results), a riskier undertaking and a richer subject for – and challenge to – writers, especially writers who delight in metaphor and the precise-enough description of the not-quite-describable feeling. Borges thought that the most important word in the balloonograph’s vocabulary was “felicity”. For Holmes, it is “hilarity”. The mood of each word is slightly different, one suggesting levity or delight, the other light-headedness or delirium; perhaps it depends on the altitude. The Swedish explorers depicted in Holmes’s final chapter, who tried to break the five-mile barrier, certainly felt something closer to hilarity. So, too, the modern aeronaut, quoted in one of Holmes’s footnotes, who hallucinated that his balloon had landed and attempted a mid-air clamber out of the basket. “Only the harness is stopping me from jump - ing out,” he recalled, in the present tense, “but I continue to jerk at the reins.”

Falling Upwards is a follow-up to Holmes’s last book, The Age of Wonder, a survey of Romantic science that contained a section on ballooning, and the latest product of his interest in the relationship between the two cultures – possibly a product of studying at Churchill College, Cambridge, an institution founded to help bridge them. (The inscription above the college gateway comes from Lucretius, the popular-science poet.)

The book is also the product of one of Holmes’s lesser-known traits: his passion, as he put it in his exquisite memoir-manifesto Footsteps, for “all things French”. (One of Holmes’s aborted projects was a portrait of the poets Gautier and Nerval that doubled as a portrait of Paris in the mid-19th century.) Ballooning is an international story and it helps to be able to move from the disinterested French “ballomania” of the late 18th century to the Victorians’ more rigid and practical ballooning culture without showing a sudden diminution in excitement.

While aeronautics allows Holmes to unite his favourite people and places and moments in history, it fails to play to his strengths. Two long set pieces – the Union forces spying from the sky, letters being airlifted out of Prussianoccupied Paris – stand out. Otherwise, his method, offering a “cluster of balloon stories”, has a constricting effect on his prose. Of all the skills in a writer’s armoury, paraphrase must be the least enabling. Most of Falling Upwards is constructed from reformulated descriptions of experiments and expeditions, full of potted biographies and use of the word “moreover”. It’s a piece of serial storytelling, rather than a work of narrative history. And the focus is tight; the closest we get to fizzing dialectics or competing forces is the pairing of keywords (ballooning as “primitive” and “sophisticated”, “practical” and “symbolic”).

And where is the human drama? Near the beginning of the book, Holmes writes that he is especially drawn to the “enigma” of people who fly balloons but, in most cases, enigmas they remain. Holmes knows that a taste for adventure can be crisply explained; in his collection of essays Footsteps, he writes that after a decade of boarding school and Roman Catholic monks, he was “desperate to slip the leash” and went travelling. Characterisation of this basic kind is mostly withheld in the new book.

An exception comes in the portrait of the French aeronaut Sophie Blanchard, who used ballooning as a means of escaping the gravitational pull of her persona: “shy to the point of self-effacement on the ground”, she was “daring to the point of recklessness” in the air. But the speculation – one of the few – that the Swedish engineer Salomon Andrée’s intimate relationship with his mother gave him “an inner confidence and self-sufficiency” is unconvincing; it doesn’t help that he died, at the age of 43, during an expedition to the North Pole. The self-sufficient tend not to embroil themselves in all-or-nothing voyages – nor to be found 30 Arctic winters after their deaths, “much pulled about by polar bears”.

Julian Barnes – another 67-year-old Francophile with a taste for the long 19th century – uses a more relaxed style in his book and comes closer to catching the magic of that mid-air breeze, the joy of aeronautic practicalities; but where Holmes is too enraptured by ballooning stories to locate their broader interest, for Barnes they are just the means to an end. With his customary disregard for genre distinctions, Barnes has put a history lesson (about Nadar and the in - vention of aerial photography), a historical romance (starring Sarah Bernhardt and a young English colonel) and a personal essay (about the death of his wife, Pat Kavanagh) between the covers of one thin book and the language of ballooning is required to smooth the transitions. A man and woman “may crash and burn, or burn and crash” but together in “that first roaring sense of uplift . . . they see further, and they see more clearly”. In a teacherly digression – not the only one – he writes: “We live on the flat, on the level, and yet – and so – we aspire . . . But when we soar, we can also crash. There are few soft landings.” Writing about Nadar, he claims: “His portraits surpass those of his contemporaries because they go deeper.”

Deeper is where Barnes wants to go and he tries to use his cluster of balloon images to help him get there. Unfortunately, as in much of his more philosophically spirited work, he starts from a very primitive view of the world, built around binarisms that he sometimes upholds and sometimes effaces. Photography is “truth” and ballooning is “magic” and by taking the earliest aerostatic photographs, Nadar scored a substantial victory for the bridging of the two (love is also said to be a meeting point of truth and magic). You might equally point out that both are the products of chemistry, whatever their symbolic associations. (And isn’t photography a kind of “magic” as well?)

Barnes’s preference for the abstract mode continues into the book’s final section, an account of his first few years as a widower that combines the weakest elements of his personality and thought (“Grief is a human, and not a medical, condition”, “Solitary happiness – it sounds like a contradiction in terms”). Readers of Barnes’s work will be familiar with the routine, the way disparagement of generalising (“Nothing follows a pattern”) is considered no kind of impediment to generalisations that he likes (“The young do better than the middle-aged; women better than men”).

When he isn’t raging against simplification, he is flattening experience into phrases that could hardly be described as case-specific: “You feel sharply the loss of shared vocabulary, of tropes, teases, short cuts, injokes, sillinesses, faux rebukes, amatory footnotes – all those obscure references rich in memory but valueless if explained to an outsider.”

The idea of the “outsider” is a potent one for Barnes and many unnamed friends and acquaintances are given a dressing down – for failing to understand something that he believes no one can understand besides the sufferer (“One grief throws no light upon another”), for expressing sympathy in the wrong terms.

Between all the talk of height and depth and soaring and crashing, Barnes is sternly insistent that people shouldn’t say they are “fighting” cancer or refer to somebody “passing”. Barnes’s peccadilloes reduce the whole genre-straddling exercise to a lesson, striking in its acidity and self-righteousness, on the dos and don’ts of metaphor. For a husband’s memoir on less anxious terms with confession – indeed, crowded with intimate detail – look to Calvin Trillin’s About Alice, which, from its title onwards, shows faith in the lines that connect the personal to the human and in the reader’s ability to follow them without being told how.

Hot air balloons depart for the channel. Photograph: Getty Images.

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

Home Alone 2: Lost in New York
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The best film soundtracks to help you pretend you live in a magical Christmas world

It’s December. You no longer have an excuse.

It’s December, which means it’s officially time to crack out the Christmas music. But while Mariah Carey and Slade have their everlasting charms, I find the best way to slip into the seasonal spirit is to use a film score to soundtrack your boring daily activities: sitting at your desk at work, doing some Christmas shopping, getting the tube. So here are the best soundtracks and scores to get you feeling festive this month.

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

Although this is a children’s film, it’s the most grown-up soundtrack on the list. Think smooth jazz with a Christmas twist, the kind of tunes Ryan Gosling is playing at the fancy restaurant in La La Land, plus the occasional choir of precocious kids. Imagine yourself sat in a cocktail chair. You’re drinking an elaborate cocktail. Perhaps there is a cocktail sausage involved also. Either way, you’re dressed head-to-toe in silk and half-heartedly unwrapping Christmas presents as though you’ve already received every gift under the sun. You are so luxurious you are bored to tears of luxury – until a tiny voice comes along and reminds you of the true meaning of Christmas. This is the kind of life the A Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack can give you. Take it with both hands.

Elf (2003)

There is a moment in Elf when Buddy pours maple syrup over his spaghetti, washing it all down with a bottle of Coca Cola. “We elves like to stick to the four main food groups,” he explains, “candy, candy canes, candy corns and syrup.” This soundtrack is the audio equivalent – sickly sweet, sugary to an almost cloying degree, as it comes peppered with cute little flutes, squeaky elf voices and sleigh bells. The album Elf: Music from the Motion Picture offers a more durable selection of classics used in the movie, including some of the greatest 1950s Christmas songs – from Louis Prima’s 1957 recording of “Pennies from Heaven”, two versions of “Sleigh Ride”, Eddy Arnold’s “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and Eartha Kitt’s 1953 “Santa Baby”. But if a sweet orchestral score is more your thing, the Elf OST of course finishes things off with the track “Spaghetti and Syrup”. Just watch out for the sugar-rush headache.

Harry Potter (2001-2011)

There are some Christmas-specific songs hidden in each of the iconic Harry Potter scores, from “Christmas at Hogwarts” to “The Whomping Willow and The Snowball Fight” to “The Kiss” (“Mistletoe!” “Probably full of knargles”), but all the magical tinkling music from these films has a Christmassy vibe. Specifically concentrate on the first three films, when John Williams was still on board and things were still mostly wonderful and mystical for Harry, Ron and Hermione. Perfect listening for that moment just before the snow starts to fall, and you can pretend you’re as magical as the Hogwarts enchanted ceiling (or Ron, that one time).

Carol (2015)

Perhaps you’re just a little too sophisticated for the commercial terror of Christmas, but, like Cate Blanchett, you still want to feel gorgeously seasonal when buying that perfect wooden train set. Then the subtly festive leanings of the Carol soundtrack is for you. Let your eyes meet a stranger’s across the department store floor, or stare longingly out of the window as your lover buys the perfect Christmas tree from the side of the road. Just do it while listening to this score, which is pleasingly interspersed with songs of longing like “Smoke Rings” and “No Other Love”.

Holiday Inn (1942)

There’s more to this soundtrack than just “White Christmas”, from Bing Crosby singing “Let’s Start The New Year Off Right” to Fred Astaire’s “You’re Easy To Dance With” to the pair’s duet on “I’ll Capture Your Heart”. The score is perfect frosty walk music, too: nostalgic, dreamy, unapologetically merry all at once.

The Tailor of Gloucester (1993)

Okay, I’m being a little self-indulgent here, but bear with me. “The Tailor of Gloucester”, adapted from the Beatrix Potter story, was an episode of the BBC series The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends and aired in 1993. A Christmastime story set in Gloucester, the place I was born, was always going to be right up my street, and our tatty VHS came out at least once a year throughout my childhood. But the music from this is something special: songs “The Tailor of Gloucester”, “Songs From Gloucester” and “Silent Falls the Winter Snow” are melancholy and very strange, and feature the singing voices of drunk rats, smug mice and a very bitter cat. It also showcases what is in my view one of the best Christmas carols, “Sussex Carol.” If you’re the kind of person who likes traditional wreaths and period dramas, and plans to watch Victorian Baking at Christmas when it airs this December 25th, this is the soundtrack for you.

Home Alone (1990-1992)

The greatest, the original, the godfather of all Christmas film soundtracks is, of course, John William’s Home Alone score. This is for everyone who likes or even merely tolerates Christmas, no exceptions. It’s simply not Christmas until you’ve listened to “Somewhere in My Memory” 80,000 times whilst staring enviously into the perfect Christmassy homes of strangers or sung “White Christmas” to the mirror. I’m sorry, I don’t make the rules. Go listen to it now—and don't forget Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, which is as good as the first.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.