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.

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As it turns out, the Bake Off and the Labour party have a lot in common

And I'm not just talking about the fact they've both been left with a old, wrinkly narcissist.

I wonder if Tom Watson and Paul Hollywood are the same person? I have never seen them in the same room together – neither in the devil’s kitchen of Westminster, nor in the heavenly Great British Bake Off marquee. Now the Parliamentary Labour Party is being forced to shift to the ­political equivalent of Channel 4, and the Cake Meister is going with. As with the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, so with Bake Off: the former presenters have departed, leaving behind the weird, judgemental, wrinkly old narcissist claiming the high ground of loyalty to the viewers – I mean members.

Is the analogy stretched, or capable of being still more elasticised? Dunno – but what I do know is that Bake Off is some weird-tasting addictive shit! I resisted watching it at all until this season, and my fears were justified. When I took the first yummy-scrummy bite, I was hooked even before the camera had slid across the manicured parkland and into that mad and misty realm where a couple of hours is a long time . . . in baking, as in contemporary British politics. It’s a given, I know, that Bake Off is a truer, deeper expression of contemporary Britain’s animating principle than party, parliament, army or even monarch. It is our inner Albion, reached by crossing the stormy sound of our own duodenums. Bake Off is truer to its idea of itself than any nation state – or mythical realm – could ever be, and so inspires a loyalty more compelling.

I have sensed this development from afar. My not actually watching the programme adds, counterintuitively, to the perspicacity of my analysis: I’m like a brilliant Kremlinologist, confined to the bowels of Bletchley Park, who nonetheless sifts the data so well that he knows when Khrushchev is constipated. Mmm, I love cake! So cried Marjorie Dawes in Little Britain when she was making a mockery of the “Fatfighters” – and it’s this mocking cry that resounds throughout contemporary Britain: mmm! We love cake! We love our televisual cake way more than real social justice, which, any way you slice it, remains a pie in the sky – and we love Bake Off’s mixing bowl of ethnicity far more than we do a melting pot – let alone true social mobility. Yes, Bake Off stands proxy for the Britain we’d like to be, but that we can’t be arsed to get off our arses and build, because we’re too busy watching people bake cakes on television.

It was Rab Butler, Churchill’s surprise choice as chancellor in the 1951 Tory government, who popularised the expression “the national cake” – and our new, immaterial national cake is a strange sort of wafer, allowing all of us who take part in Paul’s-and-Mary’s queered communion to experience this strange transubstantiation: the perfect sponge rising, as coal is once more subsidised and the railways renationalised.

Stupid, blind, improvident Tom Watson, buggering off like that – his battles with the fourth estate won’t avail him when it comes to the obscurity of Channel 4. You’ll find yourself sitting there alone in your trailer, Tom, neatly sculpting your facial hair, touching up your maquillage with food colouring – trying to recapture another era, when goatees and Britannia were cool, and Tony and Gordon divided the nation’s fate along with their polenta. Meanwhile, Mel and Sue – and, of course, Mary – will get on with the serious business of baking a patriotic sponge that can be evenly divided into 70 million pieces.

That Bake Off and the Labour Party should collapse at exactly the same time suggests either that the British oven is too cold or too hot, or that the recipe hasn’t been followed properly. Mary Berry has the charisma that occludes charisma: you look at her and think, “What’s the point of that?” But then, gradually, her quiet conviction in her competence starts to win you over – and her judgements hit home hard. Too dense, she’ll say of the offending comestible, her voice creaking like the pedal of the swing-bin that you’re about to dump your failed cake in.

Mary never needed Paul – hers is no more adversarial a presenting style than that of Mel and Sue. Mary looks towards a future in which there is far more direct and democratic cake-judging, a future in which “television personality” is shown up for the oxymoron it truly is. That she seems to be a furious narcissist (I wouldn’t be surprised if either she’s had a great deal of “work”, or she beds down in a wind tunnel every night, so swept are her features) isn’t quite as contradictory as you might imagine. Out there on the margins of British cookery for decades, baking cakes for the Flour Advisory Board (I kid you not), taking a principled stand on suet, while the entire world is heading in one direction, towards a globalised, neoliberal future of machine-made muffins – she must have had a powerful ­degree of self-belief to keep on believing in filo pastry for everyone.

So now, what will emerge from the oven? Conference has come and gone, and amateur bakers have banged their heads against the wall of the tent: a futile exercise, I’m sure you’ll agree. Will Jeremy – I’m sorry, Mary – still be able to produce a show-stopper? Will Mel and Sue and Angela and Hilary all come sneaking back, not so much shriven as proved, so that they, too, can rise again? And what about poor Tom – will he try to get a Labour Party cookery show of his own going, despite the terrible lack of that most important ingredient: members?

It’s so hard to know. It could be that The Great British Bake Off has simply reached its sell-by date and is no longer fit for consumption. Or it could be that Tom is the possessor of his alter ego’s greatest bête noire, one as fatal in politics as it is in ­bakery, to whit: a soggy bottom. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.