Levels of Life – Julian Barnes

I took a look at extracts (pp. 3–5, 36–40, 67–71) from the three parts of Julian Barnes, Levels of Life  (2014) where the author describes … stuff. Actually, if you read what I’ve written below, you’ll get the gist.

  • What different kinds of writing can you identify?
    The first part consists of reportage: some repeating of historical facts in a matter-of-fact manner. The second part has approximately the same detached tone, but includes a measure of emotion, some little interior-dialogue and a whole heap of (fictional) conversation between two of the people mentioned it the first part. The last part is a monologue on life, love, death and grief. It is personal, heartfelt and affecting on more than one level.
  • Do these extracts seem to belong to the same genre?
    The extracts are in the same voice, with the same tone and a similar style but belong to different genres in that the first is journalism, the second is historical drama and the third is … I want to say confessional, but nothing is really confessed so I’ll say that it’s memoir in a literary and fictionalised style.
  • Can you spot any continuities or discontinuities, whether stylistic (e.g. similar or dissimilar forms of writing, types of voice and tone, or kinds of sentences) or thematic?
    There is a thread; a theme that runs through the pieces: that of meetings and … whatever the opposite of that is. Leavings? There are also other, more minor motifs as mentioned above.
    The pieces are on a gradient, moving from detachment to connection to separation. The emotion contained in these pieces also follows this curve (from less to more).
    The tone seem to remain fairly constant throughout all pieces; there is a kind of authorial detachment even when emotion reaches its peak.
    There’s an interesting continuity of voice in that the first piece describes being above (in balloons), the second starts with an overview (from above) and rather detached (using the pronoun ‘we’) point-of-view. This progresses to a more personal feel (pronouns: ‘he’ and ‘she’) as the characters come closer to each other. The last part continues this closeness in that it describes an intimate relationship and this leads to a sundering of the two, which leads to a different kind of emotional closeness that arises from the distance that death creates.
    There are stylistic discontinuities, as noted above, but they are mere devices. They enhance rather than disturb the deeper continuities in this work.

Changing Style

I wrote something (original) and then I wrote two new versions. The first version was as elaborate and excessive as I could make it, and the other as distilled and bare as possible.
Original Version (telling it straight, nothing fancy, nothing to see here, move on):

There’s a guy I know that walks around town looking at all the girls. He looks for smooth skin. His eyes slip down and he admires their chests and, if there are time and opportunity, his eyes slide further down into their panties. Forget that they have winter layers; his eyes undress and caress. Then, for good measure, he swivels his neck and admires their asses as they passes.

He thinks himself quite the lothario living in the privacy of his own mind. He imagines the light to be free as it bounces off the bodies of those ladies and into his own eyes and mind. As for the gents? Let that light from those creatures escape back into the world and be lost.

Who is this man? Is he a youngster himself who wants to attract the eye of someone of his own age so that he can promise them the world? Is he a man of means who can provide love and land to his promised one? Is he perhaps a slightly older man who has seen enough of the world to be ready to settle? Or is he (and, in truth, this is he) a man coming to sixty (six-zero) who never went past sixteen (one-six) in his head!

I told him today that he needs to re-categorise the people he sees as he walks through his life. Little girls from play-mates to grand-daughterly. Old guys from grand-fatherly to peers and friends. Old women from grand-motherly to friends and peers. Young women from sex-objects to daughterly. Young men from rivals to son-like. Little boys from rough play-mates to grandson-like. And, most importantly, himself from teenager to grand-fatherly.

In this way, he can live his life whilst treating those around him appropriately. We go through changes and stages in life. It’s just not seemly to get stuck.
Elaborate and Excessive Version (flowering up the rhythm and syntax of the prose, maxing out on the types and amount of imagery, sweetly singing poetic techniques like alliteration and assonance):

Ah, see them come his way. Breaking his heart with their eyes and flattering, fluttering lashes. Is that a jiggle he sees inside that tantalisingly tight top? A sway in the step of that sweetly smiling lovely who swings her hips to the left and the right like she counting out the seconds till he sweeps her off her feet into his charms and arms. He sighs and never-say-dies when he turns to strip her skirt and socks away. Who’s to say she’ll say nay? What a sight this is, he sighs inside.

He’s quite the lothario living in the gutters of his mind-your-own mind. Light swoops down from the sun and falls into the curves and caresses of heavenly bodies on earth and then bounces out into his eyes and mind. He’s as lost in love as any can be out in the world. Love what you love and hang the rest, he says; today’s my day to drink deep.

But who is this buck (I hear you cry) tell me more of him! A teen with smooth skin that’s never felt the rasp of a razor’s edge? A twenty-something-or-other with cash to flash and a flash car to boot? A man who has fought dragons in far off realms and has returned to find his princess-next-door? Or if not, then who? Surely naught but young and fair with flashing smile and shining hair. What? This?! Wrinkled. Grey. Saggy. Get away!!

No, no, surely no. This is a mismatch; discordant disharmony. Stretch five into six and you’ll never find a sum that’s more wrong. And I told him so. Little girls do not playmates make. See older gents as your peers, not your elders. All the elders are your friends. Teach young men, rather than fight with them. And most importantly of all, look on those young women as you would a daughter; not as an object of your fevered lust. You’re a man, not a boy. Be a man.

One day I’ll watch him walk with face and features forward; focused and brave. And I’ll see his face, and I’ll read between the lines; the oh-so-many lines. And what will I see? Yes; a contented smile. Here’s hoping for a future fair.
Minimalist Version (distilled and bare):

Check that guy leching, dude!


There, that old bloke, checking out the jail-bait. Pshaw, man, that’s low.

He overhears and shrugs it off. Winds his head back into his neck. Says never again. Til ten seconds later. Another one. And another. And again. Like a sick obsession.

He listens to the voices inside his head, whispering justifications. They’re asking for it. They dressed like this for the attention. They want the reassurance that they look good. There’s no harm in looking. There are worse things. The light is free to catch. Bouncing around. Bouncing like …

Stop! That girl’s young enough to be a daughter. A granddaughter. A child in all but body. You’re not a teenager anymore. Grow up. Just stop for crying out loud!

So he stops.

And starts.

And stops.

And starts to fall apart.

And dies a little more today.

And more again tomorrow.

And the days grow dark.

And stuff shuts down.

And life drains.

And stutters.

And fails.

And then …

No then


Some after-thoughts:

  • How do the pieces compare?
    The first felt natural to write. The second was harder, partly because I was going over the same ground and partly because it’s not my natural style to be profuse and fancy (even though it’s fun). The third piece was a lot easier to write because it was shorter and because it’s closer to my style to be terse.
  • Did any possibilities arise in one that weren’t available to you in the other?
    In the fancier piece, I felt like the first section, describing the eye-candy, benefited from a more ornate style because of the nature of the thing being described. The last piece was more able to show appropriate disgust at the action of the old man. The first piece would benefit from additions from the second and third styles.
  • How does each style shift the meaning and/or emphasis of the piece?
    The flowery piece made it seem as if the narrator was condoning the actions and thoughts of the lecher. The minimalist piece was easier to use to convey a measure of disagreement with the sex-pest.
  • What elements would you take from either and re-use?
    It’s clear to me now how elements of both styles can be taken and used to send a message to the reader about the narrator’s intentions. Such a powerful tool and a valuable lesson.

Tone Examined

I cast my eyes over extracts from the beginnings of the following works:

  • Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children  (2008) – the part where the narrator describes his birth: midnight on the 15th of August 1947; the precise moment of India’s independence.
  • Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go (2005) – the part where the narrator explains a little about what it means to be a carer for ‘donors’. I suspect, but don’t know, that donors are people (clones) who give their organs continually until they die.

Both introduce us to a reminiscent first-person narrator. Here are my answers to the following questions:

  • How would you compare their styles?
    SRs style is that of a maximalist; long sentences and lots of hypotaxis where he daisy-chains clause after clause. KI is more in the middle of the Maxi/minimalist scale; he uses some long and some short sentences. Part of this is because of the narrative voice, which is that of a normal woman rather than an intellectual.
  • What are their key characteristics (think about sentence structure, language choice and imagery)?
    KI affects a chatty style in this piece, which means homely imagery based around memories and shared experiences rather than descriptions of people or things and the kind of language that an averagely educated woman in her mid-life would choose. SR’s narrator is more educated and yet looser with his language. There’s lots of stop-start narration and you get the feeling that he is pushed for time and reluctant to speak as if he has somewhere to go and he’s giving an interview to a person he doesn’t particularly like.
  • How would you describe the tone (how close the implied author and/or narrator is to their subject)?
    SR’s narrator is reluctant to speak and so is slightly antagonistic towards his audience. KI’s narrator is trying to be relaxed and to impress her audience with her integrity and poise.
  • What kind of work do these stylistic choices do on behalf of the narrative (how do they shape the subjects of each)?
    Stylistically, the long sentences SR employs give the impression that the narrator is educated and verbose. The sentences KI’s narrator uses are of average length, which gives the impression of a person of average age, interest and education.
  • What kind of relationship do they strike with the reader?
    SR’s relationship with the reader is antagonistic. KI’s narrator is calm, kind and considerate; just like the carer that she is. Starting to repeat stuff due to the inane way these questions are structured.