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.

Disney
Show Hide image

How feminist was Disney's original Beauty and the Beast?

A critique with hindsight. 

In 1991, Susan Faludi’s Backlash was published. A blistering attack on the co-opting and misrepresentation of feminism in US politics and popular culture, it made clear what many had long suspected: the second wave had already broken. That phase of thought and activism was in retreat.

One year later, Rebecca Walker, daughter of the writer and activist Alice, wrote Becoming the Third Wave for Ms magazine. A radical call to action, prompted by the confirmation of controversial judge Clarence Thomas by the US Senate, it provides a taste of what third wave feminism might have become: radical, intersectional, uncompromising.

“Let this dismissal of a woman’s experience move you to anger,” wrote Walker. “Turn that outrage into political power. Do not vote for them unless they work for us. Do not have sex with them, do not break bread with them, do not nurture them if they don’t prioritize our freedom to control our bodies and our lives.”

It’s a powerful call to arms, and one to which many women, especially working-class women and women of colour, have responded and continue to respond on a grassroots level. Nonetheless, had we been looking for a predictor of how the third wave of feminism would play out in popular culture and the mainstream media, there’s something else we should have been studying – Disney’s animated film Beauty and the Beast, first released in 1991.

I was 16 at the time and certainly thought of myself as a feminist. I hadn’t read Faludi – or indeed any feminist literature – but immediately latched onto Beauty and the Beast as a feminist film. It seems strange to me now, but it tapped into a mixture of impulses – teenage vanity, a mistrust of older women, a need for reassurance that I was unique – that I mistook for feminist principles. Perhaps they were, in a way; in a world that doesn’t see women as human, I knew I wanted to be seen as human. Only I didn’t really push it any further than that. There was a feminism, I was finding, that didn’t ask you to think about women per se. Just being a woman, and acknowledging that you had desires, was enough.

I don’t think I’m the only woman who felt that way, and 26 years later, I’m not especially surprised to see a revamped, more explicitly “feminist” Beauty and the Beast being sold to a new generation. Today’s young women are nothing if not primed for it, with self-esteem and intergenerational trust at an all-time low. The original Beauty and the Beast helped capture and nurture the disappointment many of us felt at the feminism of our mothers’ generation, at least as it had been presented to us - humourless, rigid, tactically naïve. Second waver Adrienne Rich wrote of looking at her own mother and thinking “I shall find a way of doing it all differently.” We looked at women of Rich’s generation and thought the same. Beauty and the Beast was inspiring, not least because of its mainstream credentials. Second wavers were evil stepmothers with bad PR; we’d show them you could win the battle by playing the princess.

Last night I sat down with my eldest son and rewatched the film that inspired me all those years ago. I thought I might be surprised that I’d ever found it liberating, but in fact it all made sense. So much of it predicts the path that mainstream feminism would be about to take, drifting away from the shit-and-string-beans mundanity of everyday exploitation to be dazzled by the glamour of individual inner lives. We’d given up fighting the wolves that lurked in the dark and taken to gazing into magic mirrors. The future lay in false hope.

“She’s nothing like the rest of us, is Belle”

Perhaps the most important thing to remember about the 1991 film is that Belle is nothing like the “little people” in her “poor provincial town”. Then again, you would be unlikely to forget this because she never shuts up about it. She literally walks through the streets singing about how unique she is, painfully conscious that “there must be more to this provincial life” (unlike the boring old plebs getting on with their boring old work). “Papa, do you think I’m odd?” she humblebrags. “It’s just that I’m not sure I fit in here.”

What is so different and special about Belle? Like all the other young women of the town (charmingly dismissed as “the bimbettes”) she’s tall, white and thin, with large breasts and eyes. Unlike them, however, she has brown hair. You know, just like Andrea Dworkin. So far, so feminist.

Belle also reads books. This is feminist, even if said books are about “far off places, daring swordfights, magic spells, a prince in disguise!” (hence not exactly the Scum manifesto). It doesn’t really matter what you’re reading, though, as long as you’re reading, preferably while walking through a busy market square, completely oblivious to other human beings and their pathetic little lives.

Like most fairy-tale heroines, Belle doesn’t have a mother. One presumes her mother must have died while engaged in some second-wave, biologically essentialist activity such as giving birth. Thankfully Belle doesn’t need an older female role model – or indeed any female role model – because most women are rubbish, lacking the imagination even to question their fate. If they’re not fancying Gaston, they’re faffing about with babies or getting old.

While I doubt the creators of Beauty and the Beast had been reading Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (published in 1990), I think the overall shift in mood is obvious. This is the beginning of a new style of feminism, which is not about one’s social position, but one’s inner identity. It’s not for rubbish women, who marry local heartthrobs and have babies and get old and shit. It’s only for special women, like Belle. This makes it more inclusive (no, I don’t know why, either). More importantly, it makes it more marketable. Sod the sisterhood; as long as you have the right accessories, liberation is yours.

“Gaston, you are positively primeval”

In order to have this new feminism, you still need sexists. Fortunately, Beauty and the Beast provides us with the character of Gaston, who is your classic, out-and-out, unreconstructed chauvinist. Indeed, he’s so stereotypically chauvinist you might forget for an entire hour that he’s not actually the one keeping a woman prisoner until she falls in love with him. Gaston might attempt to use Belle’s father as a means of coercing Belle to be with him; the Beast is the one who bloody well does it.

Structurally, it turns out there’s very little Gaston wants to do to Belle that the Beast doesn’t actually do. However, the latter is excused because he does it while being a beast and hence has identity issues. Not only that, but the Beast’s sexism isn’t as clichéd and common as Gaston’s. If the latter reads FHM, the former reads Julia Kristeva. If Gaston stands for the easy-win, obvious, pussy-grabbing misogyny of the right, the Beast stands for the left’s more refined, complex, long-wordy woman-hating. It’s not for Belle to challenge it, but to listen and learn from it.

This is, I think, one of the most insidious aspects of Beauty and the Beast, and the one which marks it out as a fundamentally third-wave project: it remarkets femininity – by which I mean female accommodation, empathy, self-sacrifice on behalf of males – as not just a female, but a feminist, virtue. Belle is sneeringly dismissive of the Bimbettes’ adoration of Gaston, yet quite prepared to embrace self-effacement for a more unusual male in a more unusual setting. Why, then it starts to look like empowerment! Watching this now, I can’t help recalling my own feelings about leaving behind the “coarse and unrefined” men of my own town to go to university, where I met men whose sexism I chose not to see. I associated misogyny with a lack of education and an uncritical embrace of stereotypes. Surely men who looked different and read books couldn’t hate women, too? Perhaps all they needed was a woman who understood them.

“Why, we only live to serve”

Feminism makes no sense without a meaningful analysis of work and class. I didn’t realise this back in 1991. As far as I was concerned, sexism was simply a massive, global misunderstanding, the unfortunate outcome of the mistaken belief that women were inferior to men. It never crossed my mind that it might all be the other way round: that the dehumanisation of women could have arisen as a means to justify their exploitation, an exploitation upon which countless social, political and economic structures depended. That would just have been too depressing, not to mention terribly second-wave.

While my analysis made little sense, it did make solving the problem of sexism a whole lot simpler. We could explain to men that women were people, too. We could show them that we were people, too. Job done. It did occasionally strike me as oddly fortuitous that I should have been born at just the right time for feminism to succeed. I would have pitied the women of my mother’s generation, were it not for the fact that most of those I knew were not feminists anyway. They were, if not happy with their lot, then at least accepting of it, or so it seemed to me. Women my own age, on the other hand, were more enlightened (or at least the Belles among us were).

Belle rejects Gaston’s vision of her future as his wife: “A rustic hunting lodge, my latest kill roasting on the fire, and my little wife, massaging my feet, while the little ones play with the dogs.” As she keeps on reminding us, Belle wants more to life than unpaid domestic labour. While second-wave feminists had an annoying tendency to remind us that such work never actually goes away – someone still has to do it, and surely it should be everyone – third-wavers had a better idea: pretend there still exists a class of people who are born to do all the boring old tasks no one else wants to do, only this time, said class doesn’t have to include you personally. This is the solution to which Belle turns.

The likes of Betty Friedan may have fretted over how to liberate middle-class women from domestic servitude without piling the labour onto other women. One solution Friedan didn’t count on was an enchanted castle, with the staff who claim to “only live to serve”. In modern feminist terms we would call such people “cis women” (singular version: your mum). Such women’s relationship with their class status is not conflicted; on the contrary, they apparently identify it. This means feminists don’t have to challenge an exploitative hierarchy after all. Rather they only need ensure that they – as individuals wanting “more than this provincial life” – don’t find themselves wrongly positioned within it. 

This was my kind of feminism, one based not on the world I wanted for everyone, but on the women I didn’t want to become. It was and remains incredibly appealing. It’s only now it strikes me that feminism as flight from stereotypical womanhood into one’s own perceived exceptionality isn’t reaping the rewards one might have expected, at least not for female people. It’s only now that I can’t help wondering whether Mrs Potts wasn’t such a happy teapot all along. Maybe she was seething with inner resentment. Maybe she and Babette the feather duster – tired of her unpleasant, Benny Hill-esque, rapey relationship with Lumière – dreamed of running away together. The sad fact is, we’ll never know.

I don’t take the view that Disney films are an unmitigated anti-feminist evil. Frozen (along with Tangled) is the film that inspired one of my sons to turn up to the school disco dressed as Elsa, to grow his hair long, to become the kick-ass, non-conforming seven-year-old he is today. The truth is I enjoyed watching Beauty and the Beast again. It’s comforting to be reminded of a time when sex-based inequality seemed like an easy problem to fix, when I believed I could identify my way out of my mother’s fate. But that is a fantasy. What’s worrying is the degree to which fantasy feminism is now winning out over reality, while real, live women continue to suffer.

“To be a feminist,” wrote Rebecca Walker, “is to integrate an ideology of equality and female empowerment into the very fibre of my life. it is to search for personal clarity in the midst of systemic destruction, to join in sisterhood with women when often we are divided, to understand power structures with the intention of challenging them.” In other words, it’s more than simply stepping beyond the barriers that still hold other women back. Let’s not spend the next 26 years pretending otherwise.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.