[(essay date 2016) In the following essay, Calafat discusses Levels of Life as a generic hybrid that fuses elements of memoir and essay, and harkens back to Michel de Montaigne’s practice of essay writing. Calafat situates the novel in the context of autobiographical fiction bearing the imprint of narrative self-identification through personal loss.]
Julian Barnes has always been a creative postmodern writer in the sense of cultivating different genres in an innovative manner and forging a rather personal style. He has gone from writing noir novels under the pen name of Dan Kavanagh—a clear homage to his wife—to collections of journalistic essays (Letters from London, 1995) or essays of literary criticism (Through the Window: Seventeen Essays (and One Short Story), 2012), a practice in essayistic style that is essential for his fictional work. In fact, Keeping an Eye Open, a meaningfully titled collection of noteworthy essays chiefly about French painters, was published in May 2015. Moreover, his oeuvre is well known for two unique books: the fictional biography Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), and his collection of prose pieces—some fiction, others resembling essays—A History of the World in 10½ Chapters (1989). Similarly, Arthur & George (2005) is a re-creation of an historical episode that occurred in the life of one of the icons of Englishness, the renowned detective writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In addition, Barnes has written short stories, such as Pulse (2011), and has contributed to less conventional genres, such as Nothing to Be Frightened Of (2008), an uncharacteristic autobiographical and philosophical essay on mortality and death, published months before the loss of his wife.
So, how can one best classify Levels of Life, if at all? Emma Brockes regards it as “a hard book to describe; no summary will capture the experience of reading it—the way in which, as the slim volume progresses, something not quite central to your vision builds, so that by the end you are blindsided by a quiet devastation” (n. pag). Barnes uses a tripartite structure of narratives unconventionally linked by thematic motifs related to rising and sinking in ballooning and love. In an attempt to pigeonhole it merely for the sake of highlighting its singular novelty, namely an unprecedented and smooth transition from real-life French characters from the past to his own putative grief memoir, we must start with a brief clarification of the main genre concepts of memoir and essay, which will inevitably lead us to a revision of the French tradition epitomized by Montaigne as his main source of inspiration.
Postmodern Fiction and Blurred Genres
First, in order to intertwine postmodernist fiction with the various interactions between autobiography and fiction, we can turn to Linda Hutcheon, who coined the term historiographic metafiction as a form of the novel genre (5) and spotlights Flaubert’s Parrot specifically as an example of postmodern novels that “teach us the fact and its consequences […] [that] the institutions of the past, its social structures and practices could be seen, in one sense, as social texts” (16). She concedes that the...