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  • Je Sois Autre Moy-Mesmes:Generic Blending and French Heritage in Julian Barnes’s Levels of Life
  • Caterina Calafat

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 [End Page 461] 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 genre categories are regularly challenged: “Fiction looks like biography [...], autobiography [...], history. Theoretical discourse joins forces with autobiographical memoir and Proustian reminiscence” (60). Therefore, she considers that fictional writing causes doubts about the connections between reality and text, past and present.

Second, in this sense, Jean-François Lyotard defines the postmodern condition as “incredulity toward metanarratives” (xxiv) set within a large methodological framework, so these global cultural narrative schemas will be replaced by les petits récits or localized narratives, such as the history of everyday life. In fact, this history of everyday life, specifically autobiography, “has become the quintessential postmodern genre (if it is a genre, which postmodernism cannot know)” (Saunders 4). Similarly, we perceive that reductionist or inadequate canonical notions have led to a redefinition of terms, as Robert Lehnert provided in his insightful discussion of the concepts of memoir and autobiography, as well as fiction and non-fiction: “A systematic overview proves more difficult, with contemporary definitions found in standard reference books tending to contradict each other” (762). Still, in accordance with Gunnthórunn Gudmundsdóttir’s illuminating volume, these fuzzy borderlines are not solely inherent to postmodernism, considering that “generic differences and questions about the definition of the genre of autobiography are inevitably constant preoccupations for anyone writing on autobiography” (3). Therefore, for...


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