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.

Flickr/Alfred Grupstra
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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture