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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Marvel has moved past the post-credits teaser, and it's all the better for it

Individual stories are suddenly taking precedence over franchise building.

The lasting contribution of 2008’s Iron Man to contemporary cinema comes not from the content of the film itself, but in its Avengers-teasing post-credits scene featuring an eyepatch-sporting Samuel L. Jackson. While post-credits scenes were not invented by Marvel, their widespread adoption in other blockbusters is a testament to Marvel using them to titillate and frustrate.

Fast forward nine years and Marvel’s direction has significantly altered. Having moved to a three-film-a-year structure ahead of next year’s climactic Infinity War, their two releases this summer have featured less explicit connective tissue, using post-credits scenes that are, in typical Marvel fashion, self-reflexive and fun – but this time with no teases for films to come.

Where previous Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films have trailed characters donning superhero mantles, confrontations to come, or more light-hearted team ups, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 decided to lovingly poke fun at Marvel grandmaster Stan Lee, leaving him stranded on a godforsaken space rock in the outer reaches of the stars. Spider-Man: Meanwhile Homecoming targeted filmgoers who had stayed until the end in expectation of a tease, only to receive a Captain America educational video on the virtues of “patience”.

That isn’t to say that connective tissue isn’t there. Marvel seems to be pursuing world building not through post-credits stingers, but through plot and character. In the past, teasing how awful big bad Thanos is ahead of the Avengers battling him in Infinity War would have been done through a menacing post-credits scene, as in both Avengers films to date. Instead Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 uses character as a tool to explore the world at large.

Nebula’s seething rage is, rather than just a weak excuse for an antagonist’s arc, actually grounded in character, explaining to Sean Gunn’s loveable space pirate Kraglin that Thanos would pit his daughters, her and Gamora, against each other, and replace a part of her body with machine each time she failed – and she failed every time. It’s effective. Thanos’ menace is developed, and you feel sympathy for Nebula, something Marvel has historically failed to do well for its antagnoists. Her parting promise – to kill her father – not only foreshadows the events of Infinity War, but also hints at the conclusion of a fully formed arc for her character.

In the high-school-set Spider-Man: Homecoming, the stakes quite rightly feel smaller. The inexperienced wall-crawler gets his chance to save the day not with the galaxy at risk, but with an equipment shipment owned by Iron Man alter-ego and billionaire inventor Tony Stark hanging in the balance. While such a clear metaphor for widespread change in the MCU might be a little on the nose, the set-up is effective at plaing the film at street level while also hinting at overall changes to the structure of the universe.

Stark gifting Peter a new (and oh so shiny) suit is a key set piece at the end of the film, whereas in 2015's Ant-Man’s Hope Pym inheriting her mother’s own miniaturising suit it is relegated to a teaser. Peter’s decision to turn it down not only completes Peter’s transition past seeking the approval of Stark’s unwitting father figure, but it also leaves the Avengers in an as-yet unknown state, still fragmented and incomplete after the events of 2016’s Civil War. To anticipate Spider-Man joining the Avengers proper is to anticipate the forming of the team as a whole – keeping our collective breath held until we stump up for tickets to Infinity War.

With this happy marriage of the macro and the micro, individual stories are suddenly taking precedence in the MCU, rather than being lost in the rush to signpost the foundations for the next instalment in the franchise. It’s a refreshingly filmic approach, and one which is long overdue. To suggest that Marvel is hesitant to overinflate Infinity War too early is supported by their refusal to share the footage of the film screened to audiences at the D23 and San Diego Comic Con events in recent weeks. Instead, the limelight is staying firmly on this November’s Thor: Ragnarok, and next February’s Black Panther.

Stan Lee, at the end of his Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 post credits scene, cries, “I’ve got so many more stories to tell!”, a hopeful counterpoint to a weary Captain America asking “How many more of these are there?” at the end of Homecoming. With Disney having planned-out new MCU releases all the way into 2020, entries in the highest-grossing franchise of all time won’t slow any time soon. We can, at least, hope that they continue their recent trend of combining writerly craft with blockbuster bombast. While the resulting lack of gratuitousness in Marvel’s storytelling might frustrate in the short term, fans would do well to bear in mind Captain America’s call for patience.