A Worm's Eye View of History: Julian Barnes' A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters
The title of Julian Barnes' 1989 novel, A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters is at once playful and provocative. Its first half only differs from Sir Walter Raleigh's The History of the World in its substitution of an indefinite for a definite article. Like Raleigh's History it begins with Genesis. But unlike Raleigh, Barnes does not subscribe to a providential interpretation of history. Where Raleigh's was a monumental attempt to record the history of the world starting with the Creation, Barnes's modest book runs to some 300 pages and eschews any pretence of continuity or comprehensiveness. His is merely a history among many possible histories of the world.
The second half of the title of Barnes's book describes a work that is absurdly brief for such a subject, while its provocative inclusion of a "1/2" chapter draws attention to itself. This half chapter, "Parenthesis," is the only section of the book to use a didactic, mildly professorial voice, with no apparent hint of irony or humor. It forms the same function that "The Preface" does in Raleigh's History in offering a rationale and apology. Interestingly both writers see history as necessarily fragmented. Barnes's entire book can be seen as a series of digressions from those events normally considered central to any historical account of the world. At the same time Barnes has insisted that this half-chapter is the one occasion in the book where he dispenses with the masks of the fiction writer and offers his personal truth, in much the way that El Greco is the only character in the "Burial of Count Orgaz" who looks out at the spectator, saying in effect, according to Barnes, "'I did this. You've got any complaints, look at me. [. . .] I'm responsible" (Stuart 15). Yet this rare moment of truthfulness is offered in the form of a digression--a digression in a work that is nothing but a series of digressions from the supposed mainstream of history.
Clearly in this book, as in Flaubert's Parrot (1984), Barnes is adopting an ironic approach to history as a genre. Barnes has said of A History of the World that it "deals with one of the questions that obsessed Braithwaite in that book [Flaubert's Parrot]. And that is: How do we seize the past?" (Cook 12). He would appear to agree with Barthes' objection to what he calls "the fallacy of representation" attaching to traditional historical discourse. In "The Discourse of History" Barthes sees historical discourse as "in its essence a form of ideological elaboration, or to put it more precisely, an imaginary elaboration" (16). Barthes believes that "[t]he historian is not so much a collector of facts as a collector and relater of signifiers; that is to say, he organizes them with the purpose of establishing positive meaning and filling the vacuum of pure, meaningless series" (16). Barnes adopts a similar view of history in his book: "We make up a story to cover the facts we don't know or can't accept; we keep a few facts and spin a new story round them" (240).
The strategy that probably most distinguishes this book from the rest of his fictional work is its use of fragmented episodes from the history of the world, its use of what Lévi-Strauss has called bricolage. Asked in what sense his book, A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, was not just a book of short stories, Barnes replied: "Well, it was conceived as a whole and executed as a whole. Things in it thicken and deepen" (Cook 12). The question that needs asking, then, are whether and how this book generates discursive meaning(s) over the totality of its very different chapters. Are some of its meanings produced by the sum of its multiple texts? Is there a shape, a beginning and end to this book? Does it qualify as what Frank Kermode has called one of those fictions "whose ends are consonant with origins, and in concord, however unexpected, with their precedents," fictions which "satisfy our needs" by giving significance to our lives, seeing that we live our whole lifetime in the midst of things (Sense 5, 7)? Equally does it live up to Barnes' own dictum that "art is the stuff you finally understand, and life, perhaps, is the stuff you finally can't understand" (McGrath 23)?
It has been pointed out by more than one reviewer that the book opens with an account of Noah and the Flood (the biblical re-creation, if not the creation of the world) and that it closes with a final chapter which envisions a contemporary form of heaven. But between chapter one's origins and chapter ten's ends the remaining eight and a half chapters do not progress chronologically. Chapter two stages a hijacking of a pleasure boat by modern Arab terrorists. Chapter three transcribes sixteenth century court records of a case in the diocese of Besançon, France. Chapter four invents the journey or crazed fantasy of a woman escaping by sea from a nuclear-ravaged West and is mildly futuristic. Chapter five is divided between a section recounting the shipwreck of the French frigate, the Medusa, in 1816, and a section analyzing the stages in the painting of the "The Raft of the Medusa" by Géricault three years later. Chapter six recounts a fictional 1840 pilgrimage of an Irish woman to Mount Ararat where she dies. Chapter seven is titled "Three Simple Stories." The first story concerns a survivor from the Titanic, the second Jonah and a sailor in 1891 both of whom were swallowed by a whale, the third the Jewish passengers aboard the St. Louis trying to escape from Nazi Germany in 1939. Chapter eight is a story about a modern film actor on location in the Venezuelan jungle (suggestive of Robert Bolt's The Mission). Next comes the half chapter, "Parenthesis," an essay on love. Chapter nine recounts another fictitious expedition in 1977 to Mount Ararat by an astronaut in search of Noah's ark.
Instead of the traditional chronological ordering favored by historians, this book proceeds by juxtapositions, by parallels and contrasts, by connections that depend on irony or accident. Additionally Barnes uses a bewildering variety of narrative voices for the book's different episodes. It is as if Barnes was straining to differentiate his "historical" work from that of historians who aspire to a stance of objectivity. In "The Discourse of History" Barthes parallels the objective type of historian's concealment of himself as utterer of his own discourse to that of the so called "realist" novelist:
On the level of discourse, objectivity - or the deficiency of signs of the utterer - thus appears as a particular form of imaginary projection, the product of what might be called the referential illusion, since in this case the historian is claiming to allow the referent to speak all on its own. This type of illusion is not exclusive to historical discourse. It would be hard to count the novelists who imagined - in the epoch of Realism - that they were "objective" because they suppressed the signs of the "I" in their discourse! (11)
As Barthes observes, we now know better than to ascribe objectivity to either persona, because we realize that the absence of any signs pointing to the utterer merely substitutes an objective for a subjective utterer of the discourse.
As if in reaction to this discursive camouflage so frequently deployed by traditional historians and realist novelists alike, Barnes positively flouts his proliferation of subjective narrators. Barnes's book opens with the morally superior voice of the woodworm for whom "man is a very unevolved species compared to the animals" (28). There is the absurdly self-important voice used in the French medieval law courts in Chapter 3. The art historian takes over in the second part of Chapter 5. There is the egotistical epistolary voice of the actor in Chapter 8. There are several first-person narratives, including that of the possibly delusional Kath of Chapter 4, the eighteen-year-old prep-school master of the first of "Three Simple Stories" (Chapter 7), and the dreamer of Chapter 10 who wakes up in a distinctly twentieth century heaven. Above all, there is the highly personal, mildly didactic voice of a narrator who comes close to occupying the position of the author in the half-chapter, "Parenthesis." Yet Barnes has said: "All the narrators are meant to be touching in their aspirations, even if often proved to be foolish or deluded" (Stuart 15). Does this include the narrator of "Parenthesis"?
Barnes manages to summon up within this brief book a remarkably wide range of speech modes and different voices (those "voices echoing in the dark" (240) that constitute the history of the world). Chapter eight, for instance, consists entirely of letters sent by a second rate actor to his girl friend back home. Barnes accurately captures the clichés, lack of punctuation and poor syntax that reveal his derivative mind:
I get out your photo with the chipmunk face and kiss it. That's all that matters, you and me having babies. Let's do it, Pippa. Your mum would be pleased, wouldn't she? I said to Fish do you have kids, he said yes they're the apple of my eye. I put my arm round him and gave him a hug just like that. It's things like that that keep everything going, isn't it? (211)
Compare this to the half chapter ("Parenthesis") in which "Julian Barnes" talks in the first person about love:
Poets seem to write more easily about love than prose writers. For a start, they own that flexible "I" (when I say "I" you will want to know within a paragraph or two whether I mean Julian Barnes or someone invented; a poet can shimmy between the two, getting credit for both deep feeling and objectivity). (225)
In drawing attention to the prose medium he is using, Barnes - unlike the actor - contrives to complicate and energize his whole discourse on the difficult subject of love. Style and sincerity are shown to be closely connected. Barnes shows an equal command of sixteenth century French legalese, nineteenth century Irish religious enthusiasm, and contemporary American (with acknowledgements to his friend Jay McInerney for technical assistance). What all the chapters and voices have in common is that each subjects a section of Western history to the imperative of textual narrative. According to Barnes, "what makes each chapter work is that it has a structure and it has a narrative pulse" (Smith 73).
Despite the book's chronological and narrational irregularities, the reader's natural urge to make connections between these disparate segments of text, to convert this sequence of varying narratives into a larger overarching narrative, is given encouragement by various connective devices in the book. Paradoxically, at the same time the book is the work of a contemporary writer who typically does not see much coherence or order in the world around him. Life is "all hazard and chaos, with occasional small pieces of progress," he told one interviewer (Saunders 9). So the kind of connections and the kind of coherence found in this book are made to reflect this late twentieth century sense of dislocation in human life and history:
The history of the world? Just voices echoing in the dark; images that burn for a few centuries and then fade; stories, old stories that sometimes seem to overlap; strange links, impertinent connections. (240)
That is a more accurate description of the contents and connections within this book than might be apparent.
Let us start with those strange links and impertinent connections. Chapter one reveals among other things that Noah and his family stayed alive for the duration of their sojourn at sea by eating to extinction a number of the species who had entered the Ark two by two. Further Noah and his family discriminated between what they called the clean and unclean species, only sacrificing the so-called clean for their meal table. The next chapter describes the tourists unsuspectingly entering the cruise ship "in obedient couples." "'The animals came in two by two,' Franklin commented" (33). Sure enough, when the Arab hijackers come to start shooting two passengers an hour they adopt a similar policy to Noah's of segregating those clean(?) nationalities supposedly most responsible for the Palestinians' predicament and murdering them first. What are we as readers to make of this narrative connection? That whichever clique is in power throughout history will always attempt to solidify their position by creating an other as enemy or object of hate? That binary oppositions with their appeal to "natural" kinship are divisive and invariably lead to the destruction of life? That the recurrent human tendency to differentiate between groups necessarily ends with a superior and inferior category?
Barnes is less interested in deconstructing such oppositions than he is in raising questions. He claims to agree with Flaubert's dictum, which Barnes paraphrased for one interviewer: "'The desire to reach conclusions is a sign of human stupidity'" (McGrath 23). The questions that Barnes raises in this book nevertheless show a relatedness, though one that is problematized. The same motif - the division between the clean and the unclean occurs in the third of the three stories comprising Chapter 7. This opens by inviting comparison with the Achille Lauro-type cruise ship of chapter two:
At 8 PM on Saturday, 13th May 1939, the liner St Louis left its home port of Hamburg. It was a cruise ship, and most of the 937 passengers booked on its transatlantic voyage carried visas confirming that they were "tourists, travelling for pleasure" (181).
In fact they are anything but tourists. They are Jews fleeing from a Nazi state intent on exterminating them. They might quite possibly also include some of the Zionists against whom the Arabs later stage their attack in chapter 2. Unlike that previous fictional episode involving the terrorists, this "story" is a factual account of a shameful episode dating from just prior to the outbreak of the Second World War in which many of the world's free countries, including the United States, refused to allow these political refugees to disembark for various spurious reasons. The original intention was that all the emigrants would disembark in Havana. When the Cuban authorities held out for more money than the emigrants could come up with an impasse resulted. One suggestion was that, as 250 passengers were booked for the return journey to Europe, at least the same number of Jews might be allowed to disembark. Barnes continues: "But how would you choose the 250 who were to be allowed off the Ark? Who would separate the clean from the unclean? Was it to be done by casting lots" (184)?
Those three words - "Ark," "clean," and "unclean" carry an additional semantic burden that has been created by the earlier narrative episodes and is purely ideological in content. An Ark/ship that is supposed to protect its occupants from the storms of the world turns into a prison ship for animals and humans alike, both of whom are victimized by being categorized as the other by those in control. For the reader who remembers that according to Genesis God caused it to rain "for forty days and forty nights" (7. 4), Barnes' comment in the penultimate paragraph that the 350 Jews allowed into Britain "were able to reflect that their wanderings at sea had lasted precisely forty days and forty nights" (188) resonates with irony. This biblical period of time is also precisely the duration of Moses' stay on Mount Sinai and of Jesus's stay in the wilderness. Similarly the suggestion that the refugees might try "casting lots" reminds the reader of the biblical accounts of the casting of lots between Saul and his son Jonathan and of the Roman soldiers casting lots for the crucified Jesus's garments. What is the final effect of these intertextual references? They illustrate the fact that from the beginnings of time humans have sought to validate their own status by turning on those they choose to designate the "unclean." Further, humans tend to reinforce these actions by appealing to the authority of some organized form of religion. Beneath a postmodern veil of raising questions this accumulation of instances invites the reader to reach some provisional conclusions (I would stress the plural) concerning human nature in all these narratives within narratives.
Some of these seemingly impertinent connections between chapters are predictive rather than retrospective. In chapter one among the animals on the Ark who are afraid of Noah are the reindeer. But "it wasn't just fear of Noah, it was something deeper" (12). They show powers of foresight, "as if they were saying, You think this is the worst? Don't count on it" (13). What it is that so scares them is not revealed until chapter four. There, after a Chernobyl-type nuclear disaster, reindeer in Norway that have received a high dose of radiation are being slaughtered and fed to mink. At first the authorities plan to bury the reindeer. But that would make "it look as if there's been a problem, like something's actually gone wrong" (86). The female protagonist comments: "we've been punishing animals from the beginning, haven't we" (87)? She concludes, "Everything is connected, even the parts we don't like, especially the parts we don't like" (84). That comment equally applies to the narrative organization of this book as a whole. Noah's presumptuous use and disposal of the animals committed to his care anticipates a continuing arrogance on humans' part, the disastrous consequences of which are just as readily suppressed by the modern media as they were in the biblical account of Noah in Genesis. The reader's knowledge that such censorship on the part of the authorities is all too likely, despite the fictional nature of Chapter 4, retrospectively bestows a peculiar kind of imaginative authority on Barnes' retelling of the biblical story of Noah in which he fictionally reinscribes what he infers are the suppressed elements of the official account of the episode. His connection of the parts we don't like only adds to their credibility.
Let us take one more instance of Barnes's apparently insignificant yet ultimately crucial connections between his parts/chapters. Chapter 10 pictures heaven as a dreamlike state in which dreamers "'get the sort of Heaven they want'." The dreamer-protagonist asks his heavenly informant, "'And what sort do they want on the whole?'" "'Well,'" she replies, "'they want a continuation of life, that's what we find. But [. . .] better, needless to say'" (298-9). What that turns out to be in practice is principally golf, sex, shopping, and meeting famous people (such as Noah), all of which activities reveal their underlying banality as the millennia pass by. Among the famous people is Hitler (a reference back not just to the St Louis but to his predecessor in prejudicial discrimination, Noah). The dreamer is naturally surprised at finding this arch-villain in heaven. What, he demands, happened to Hell? It turns out there isn't any Hell, merely a theme park filled with skeletons and devils played by out-of-work actors. As his heavenly informant explains, "that's all people want nowadays" (300). Clearly Barnes's heaven is a collective projection of the twentieth century psyche. Only in this final chapter is the human need to separate living beings into the clean and the unclean abandoned in favor of an anodyne world where everyone is equal - and eventually equally bored by it all, so bored that they opt to die off for a second time. The dreamer concludes that, "Heaven's a very good idea, it's a perfect idea you could say, but not for us. Not given the way we are" (307). The implication is that the human species is only happy when it has an artificially created alternative or other that provides it with its sense of cohesion and identity. A world in which no one is discriminated against is merely a dream of what we imagine we want but would actually find intolerably innocuous and tedious. Dependent on binary oppositions for our (false) sense of identity, we choose not to deconstruct them.
Although Barnes continually hints at the presence of an overarching signified throughout the book, he makes his reader establish the connections between the signifiers scattered throughout the various chapters and deduce the narrative significance that emerges from making such connections. If anything he makes it harder on the reader by offering a bewildering variety of discourses and genres. His output to date shows him to be a master of a wide variety of genres and forms, most notably in Flaubert's Parrot, his literary detective novel, but also in his novel of psychotic obsession, Before She Met Me (1982), his political courtroom drama, The Porcupine (1992), and his futurist farce, England, England (1998). In the different chapters of A History Barnes offers us a multiplicity of discursive genres - a fable, a political thriller, a courtroom drama, science fiction (or a psychiatric case history), a historical narrative, art criticism, epistolary fiction, an essay on love, and a dream-vision that, as one reviewer pointed out, recalls one of the most famous episodes of "The Twilight Zone" (Dirda X4). This bewildering discursive variety necessarily draws attention to the ways in which different modes of discourse generate different meanings regardless of their content. Given the theme of human divisiveness, each episode offers a very different variation on this theme - from the historically revisionist mode of the account of the Flood to the near tragic mode of the Jewish refugees, to the lightly satirical and humorous mode of the escapist fantasy of heaven. What emerges by the end is an acute awareness on the part of the reader of the presence of narrativity and its unavoidable role in all forms of historical discourse.
Variety and heterogeneity are as important to Barnes's narrative purpose as are the repetitive phrases, motifs and themes. His book appears to indicate that there are as many versions of history as there are forms of discourse, and yet that certain characteristics of human nature persist in surfacing no matter what discursive formation is employed. Take for instance his comment on Géricault's painting that connects it to similar human responses by the occupants of Noah's ark:
[. . .] how rarely do our emotions meet the object they seem to deserve? How hopelessly we signal; how dark the sky; how big the waves. We are all lost at sea, washed between hope and despair, hailing something that may never come to rescue us. (137)
Or take his assertion in "Parenthesis" that we must believe in love if we are not to "surrender to [. . .] someone else's truth" (244). Joyce Carol Oates refers to these residual truths at the core of what appears to be a quintessentially postmodern work when, reviewing this book, she called Barnes a "quintessential humanist [. . .] of the pre-post-modernist species" (13). Nevertheless he himself insists that "[w]e all know objective truth is not obtainable." The monologic or unitary version of the past, what Barnes calls the "God-eyed version," is invariably "a charming, impossible fake." On the other hand, he insists, "while we know this, we must believe that objective truth is obtainable," or at least that "43 per cent objective truth is better than 41 per cent" (243-4). Is Barnes' attempting to have it both ways here? Is he insisting in postmodern fashion on the necessary plurality of meanings while attempting to avoid the associated charge of relativism? Or is he implicitly subscribing to that school of postmodern historiography represented by Hayden White, Michel de Certeau and the like that insist that their suspicion of the act of historiography "need not imply radical relativism, or subjectivism and egoism, or an unconcern with the past" (Lentricchia xiv)? There may not be a metanarrative to this book, but certain repetitive motifs are discernible no matter how he retells human history. Do these recurring patterns have any referential reality? Or are they all simply products of the web of textuality, interpretation and narration?
Overtly Barnes only replies in narrative terms. If the book works for you, he has said, "then you see that it sort of thickens and deepens as it goes on, and that one chapter is set in a precise relationship to the other chapter" (Kidder E1). He is suggesting here that each chapter, even the final chapter that appears to celebrate the thin and the shallow in life (or the afterlife), gains resonance by its links and parallels to previous chapters. The structural parallels are numerous. As has been noted, the opening and closing chapters offer narratives of the near-beginning and near-end of human history. Chapter one introduces a series of motifs that recur in subsequent chapters and carry similar associations with them. Noah's divisiveness has already been seen to echo down the ages. The motif of his drunkenness ("You could even argue, I suppose, that God drove Noah to drink" 30) reappears in chapters recounting the wreck of the Medusa, the actor on location in the jungle, and in heaven. The Ark as a refuge-cum-prison is reincarnated in the cruise ship hijacked by terrorists and the Jewish refugees' St. Louis, in the Medusa, in the small boat in which the (possibly deranged) woman takes off to escape the nuclear catastrophe, and in the raft that capsizes and drowns the principal actor in the jungle.
The Ark lands on Mount Ararat at the end of chapter one. Chapter six concocts a story about the journey that an Irish woman made in 1840 to Mount Ararat. Her intention is to ask the monks in the monastery there to intercede for the soul of her dead atheistical father. On arrival she finds that the monks have forgotten the tradition forbidding them to ferment the grapes planted by the drunkard Noah. After an earthquake has demolished the monastery she stages her own death on the mountain. In chapter nine an ex-astronaut (reminiscent of Apollo 15's James Irwin) is convinced that God spoke to him while he was on the moon instructing him to find Noah's Ark. He mounts his expedition in 1977 and discovers the skeleton of what he at first assumes to be Noah, only for the pathologists to inform him that it belongs to a woman who died there some 130 -50 years before - the protagonist of chapter six. The astronaut is himself casually mentioned by the actor in chapter eight as returning like him from a strange land totally transformed. The identification of the sleazy actor (who ends up significantly drunkenly - writing to his ex-lover, "Listen bitch why don't you just get out of my life" 220) with the born-again astronaut provides a form of anticipatory deflation of the religious zealot's integrity. Even the half chapter in its discussion of love refers to his wife as "the centre of my world," just as the "Armenians believed that Ararat was the centre of the world" (234).
These motifs and homologous connections proliferate far beyond what has been outlined above. They suggest in narrative form a continuity beneath the bewildering variety of human activity over the ages. The extent (and cultural limits) of that variety is neatly summarized by the dreamer in heaven. Apart from eating, golf, sex and shopping, he indulges in more or less all the incidents that have already been recounted in the previous nine and half chapters:
- I went on several cruises [chaps. 2 and 7];
- I learned canoeing [chap. 8], mountaineering [chaps. 6 and 9], ballooning;
- I got into all sorts of danger and escaped [chaps. 4, 5, and 7];
- I explored the jungle [chap.8];
- I watched a court case (didn't agree with the verdict) [chap. 3];
- I tried being a painter (not as bad as I thought!) and a surgeon [chap. 5];
- I fell in love, of course, lots of times ["Parenthesis" - the half chapter];
- I pretended I was the last person on earth (and the first) [chaps. 10 and 1]. (297)
There is no master discourse. This book is titled A History of the World. As Merritt Moseley comments, "No claim is made that this history is the right one [. . .] there are only histories" (109). But the repetitions and intertextual allusions also assert in narrative form that certain patterns of human interaction reappear over the expanse of history. No matter how you tell it - and Barnes tells it in a bewildering variety of ways - history seemingly cannot help revealing certain repetitive aspects of human nature.
Perhaps the most reiterated motif is that of the woodworm related to that of the numerous reincarnations of the Ark. It is a woodworm who is revealed in the final sentence of the chapter to be the narrator of chapter one. He and six other woodworms stowed away on the Ark and escape undetected after the Flood has subsided. Yet the status of this woodworm is as ambiguous as that of the traditional historian who, according to Barthes, contrives to "'dechronologize' the 'thread' of history" (10). In the final surprise paragraph of chapter one of Barnes's book the woodworm speaks "with the hindsight of a few millennia" (30). This confusion between narrated and narrator's time, according to Barthes, places the historian in the same position as the maker of myth: "It is to the extent that he knows what has not yet been told that the historian, like the actor of myth, needs to double up the chronological unwinding of events with references to the time of his own speech" (30). Thus the woodworm's atemporal status draws attention to its further use in the book as a signifier of a recurrent signified to be found in life in all its forms. The woodworm's is the voice of the outcast - excluded from God's ways and from official history. He is highly critical of both God and the ways of Noah and his species:
Put it this way: Noah was pretty bad, but you should have seen the others. It came as little surprise to us that God decided to wipe the slate clean; the only puzzle was that he chose to preserve anything at all of this species whose creation did not reflect particularly well on its creator. (8)
Noah's carnivorous decimation of the animal population is seen as classist arrogance justified by appeal to a God suspiciously biased towards the human species that invoked (or invented?) him.
Woodworms constantly crop up throughout the rest of the book. Fittingly they are responsible in chapter three for eating through a leg of the Bishop of Besançon's throne which collapses causing him to be "hurled against his will into a state of imbecility" (64). As in chapter one they are representative of those forces of nature that, excluded from human society, cannot be contained by the human will. The villagers' successful prosecution of the woodworm who end up being excommunicated (this chapter is a transcription of the main arguments of an actual court case of 1520) is ironically undercut by the conclusion in which the closing words of the juge d'Église have been eaten by woodworm. The facts excluded from the canon of the church are reinscribed by Barnes into its history thereby undermining its unitary version of the past. In chapter eight woodworms are still the one danger to the survival of the actor-narrator's discourse (his bizarre love letters) on their journey out of the jungle; letters have to be protected from them by being placed in a plastic bag. This is typical of what Barnes refers to as his thickening effect. By this stage he has turned the insect into a potent metaphor for that which is excluded or denied by various monologic discourses. So when he comes to describe the astronaut turned religious zealot who hears God tell him to search for Noah's Ark in chapter nine, Barnes is able to undermine the astronaut's sense of truth by a brief ironic reference to the woodworm: "he knew it [the Ark] couldn't have rotted or been eaten by termites, because God's command to find the Ark clearly implied that there was something left of it" (266). The astronaut shows the same blind faith in revealed truth that Noah did. He even asserts that as Noah used only gopher-wood for the Ark it was "probably resistant to both rot and termites" (266). The survival of the woodworm convincingly asserts the existence of an alternative, repressed version of events.
So many of the chapters offer versions of the Ark, boats built for human survival against the storms of God and/or nature. Yet these craft are all subject to the caprices of the woodworm eating away at them from within, or of what they come to represent in more general terms - the non-human, excluded forces of our world. Pleasure trips turn into nightmares. Rafts constructed to film a reenactment of a past disaster on the river repeat that disaster. Art becomes confused with reality by Indians and film crew alike, just as historical narrative becomes confused with fictional narrative by writer and readers alike.
The unsinkable Titanic sinks. So does the Medusa.
Barnes' two-part treatment in chapter five of the notorious shipwreck of the Medusa in 1816 and the subsequent painting of the survivors on the raft executed by Géricault in 1819 brings many of the themes and motifs of the book together. First comes his dispassionate but carefully shaped account of what happened to the 150 passengers and crew who spent fifteen days on the raft before being rescued. They mutiny and fight among themselves (as Noah's family did). They start eating the flesh of their dead comrades (as Noah ate his animals). Eventually the survivors are forced to make a choice between treating the fifteen healthy and twelve wounded alike, or throwing the wounded overboard to conserve the diminishing provisions. They choose the latter: "The healthy were separated from the unhealthy like the clean from the unclean" (121). We are back on Noah's Ark. Two of the fifteen who were rescued remind the reader of Noah by concluding that "the manner in which they were saved was truly miraculous" (123). But what about the 135 "unclean" who were killed or drowned before help arrived?
In the second section Barnes turns to the way in which Géricault chose to portray this incident. It opens: "How do you turn catastrophe into art" (125)? This is clearly the question Barnes is asking himself throughout his own attempt to turn the catastrophes of human history into meaningful, that is fictional, shape. Géricault had access to the same accounts from the survivors that Barnes summarized in the first section. Yet the painting shows not fifteen but twenty men on the raft, five of them dead. The painter has dragged five of the wounded back from the sea: "And should the dead lose their vote in the referendum over hope versus despair?" (131). Barnes wants to demonstrate the way any artist is compelled to rearrange the facts to give meaning to his narrative composition. Géricault cleans up the raft and restores the survivors to healthy muscularity. Why? In order to shift us as spectators "through currents of hope and despair, elation, panic and resignation" (137). According to Barnes Géricault is intent on demonstrating the equality of optimistic and pessimistic interpretations of human destiny. So he chooses to depict not the moment of rescue, but the earlier moment when the survivors sight a vessel on the horizon that fails to see them or come closer. Much like Beckett's reference in Waiting for Godot to the two thieves crucified with Christ one of whom is saved and the other damned, as many survivors hope that the boat is coming closer as conclude that it is heading away from them. The painting invites us to read it as "an image of hope being mocked" (132).
Barnes appears to conclude with the observation: "We are all lost at sea, washed between hope and despair, hailing something that may never come to rescue us [. . .] Catastrophe has become art: that is, after all, what it is for" (137). Barnes here targets both artist and historian for their similar proclivity in turning life's disasters into the more satisfying shapes of narrative. But Barnes next returns to the subject of Noah. Why did the artistic depiction of his Ark on the flood waters go out of fashion in the early sixteenth century? Michelangelo's painting of this incident on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel establishes a new trend by placing the Ark in the background. "What fills the foreground are the anguished figures of those doomed antediluvians left to perish when the chosen Noah and his family were saved" (138). By Poussin's time "old Noah has sailed out of art history" (138). The post-medieval world chose to tell a different story, not a conflicting one, but a complementary one that by its emphasis on the doomed casts Noah in a less privileged, more dubious light.
It is surprising, then, that in his half chapter, "Parenthesis," Barnes does not treat art as the best response to the false narratives of the past promoted by religion. "Art, picking up confidence from the decline of religion, announces its transcendence of the world [. . .] but this announcement isn't accessible to all, or where accessible isn't always inspiring or welcome." So, he concludes, "religion and art must yield to love" (242-3). Why love? One reason Barnes offers is that love resists the tyranny of history which is no more than fabulation. "Our panic and our pain are only eased by soothing fabulation; we call it history" (240). Love can't change history, Barnes asserts, but it can "teach us to stand up to history" (238). Love, then, represents our personal truth. But that truth bred of pure subjectivity can best be articulated by art. And the woodworm eats away at love as much as at the frame of Géricault's painting. So any true artist has to give a voice also to that excluded other, the woodworm in our midst. Ultimately the woodworm is a textual presence, signifying the presence of an aporia, reminding us of the false divisions made by historians in the textual continuum of the past.
It is remarkable how closely Barnes as pseudo-historian mirrors the way traditional historians, according to Barthes, organize their material in the shape of "lists that are to a certain extent closed, and therefore accessible to comprehension: in a word, they can form collections, whose units end up by repeating themselves, in combinations that are obviously subject to variation" (12). Barnes's "collection" (or recurrent units of content) is subject to similar rules of substitution and transformation as those observed by the historians Barthes uses as examples. His collection includes the shipwrecked and the excluded as well as the dominant members of the species, the storms afflicting everyone adrift in the sea of life, the vessels we all seek shelter in from such storms and the woodworm eating away at them from within. Barthes further refines his concept of the historical collection: "In the case of less well defined collections the units of content may nonetheless receive a strong structuring which derives not from the lexicon, but from the personal thematic of the author" (13). In Barnes's case his collection includes a deliberate confusion or blurring between dreaming and waking states, between fictional and historical accounts, and between monologic and dialogic modes of narration.
This brings us to the question of the problematic status of the final chapter. It opens and closes with a deliberate attempt to confuse the distinction between waking and dreaming states: "I dreamt that I woke up. It's the oldest dream of all, and I've just had it" (281, 307). Is this late twentieth century version of the afterlife meant to be seen as the ultimate teleological delusion entertained by humans throughout their history? Why is the narrator of this chapter so unimaginative, so banal in the choices he makes, given the seemingly limitless possibilities offered him? Among other things, the narrator tells us that he "fell in love, of course, lots of times" (297) and that, although "reluctant to criticize [his] dear wife," the sex he has with his nightly female visitor puts his sexual relations with his wife distinctly in the shade. How are we as readers to take this dismissal of a belief in monogamous love that the narrator of the half chapter considers essential to human survival? Although it appears hard to read any irony into the half chapter, do the pedestrian desires and fantasies of the narrator of the final chapter work to ironize the earlier half chapter?
Turning back to "Parenthesis" one notices one of those "impertinent connections" (240) that Barnes claims make up the history of the world: "Trusting virgins were told that love was [. . .] an ark on which two might escape the Flood." In Barnes's comment the irony is unmistakable: "It may be an ark, but one on which anthropophagy is rife; an ark skippered by some crazy greybeard who beats you round the head with his gopher-wood stave, and might pitch you overboard at any moment" (229). Love, the only possible resistance to the lies of history, is itself cannibalistic and highly unpredictable. Other such connections in "Parenthesis" catch the eye: love will make you unhappy, he asserts, either sooner due to incompatibility, "or unhappy later, when the woodworm has quietly been gnawing away for years and the bishop's throne collapses" (243).
Does the final chapter, then, thicken this earlier half chapter by retrospectively casting it in an ironic light that escapes notice when first reading it? Does the last chapter function as a kind of textual woodworm, undermining whatever certainties the earlier half chapter appeared to offer the reader? Is the reader being taught to live without answers, seeing that all the infallible answers offered to the narrator by his celestial informant only serve to leave him unsatisfied? Our dreams of a heaven turn out to be palliatives, something we need because, as the narrator learns, we "can't get by without the dream" (307). Past and future belong to the realm of dreams or of the imagination, the domain of (narrative) art. In dreaming that he has just woken up, the narrator of the final chapter parallels the reader who has been induced by the power of the narrative to believe that he or she has been experiencing the fragmented actuality of human history, when all that has been shared is a dream of our past and our future. . This confusion between dreaming and waking states is elaborated on at the end of "The Survivor." The reader has no way of deciding whether Kath is on an island and the men in her dreams are the dreamers or whether she is in a hospital and she herself is the dreamer.
If history is a product of collective dreaming, why shouldn't Barnes dream up his own imagistic version of history? It is quite productive to see the chapters comprising this book as a series of images, each asking the spectator/reader to make his own mind up as to their relative truth-value, while each adds to, thickens or deepens our understanding of the rest. In one interview Barnes uses this analogy to justify the fictional or artistic coherence of the book as a whole. The novel is "perhaps more like a sequence of paintings on a wall," he suggests, "if you imagine a series of twelve, six on the top and six on the bottom. You can get pleasure from each in turn if you want to, but if you look at them together, then you see that they amount to one big panel" (Kidder E1). At the same time in "Parenthesis" Barnes calls those "medieval paintings which show all the stages of Christ's Passion as happening simultaneously in different parts of the picture" "a charming, impossible fake," a "God-eyed version of what 'really' happened" (243).
Barnes eschews a God-eyed narrative perspective in this book. The relation between his narrative images or chapters is one of disjunction, ironic juxtaposition, disparity. He rejects the traditional assumption that "there is some special dispensation whereby the signs that constitute an historical text have reference to events in the world" (Kermode, Genesis 108). His book celebrates the textuality of history, the narrativity of historical narration. As Barthes writes, "in 'objective' history, the 'real' is never more than an unformulated signified, sheltering behind the apparently all-powerful referent" (17). Barnes points to a signified by using as signifiers those strange links and impertinent connections that invite the reader to discover a coherence in the book as a whole. In reviewing this book Salman Rushdie claimed that what Barnes was attempting was "the novel as footnote to history, as subversion of the given [. . .] fiction as critique" (241). Seen in that light, this book can be seen to belong to the same genre as Rushdie's novels, fiction written on and about the margins of life that nevertheless manages to occupy its center.
- Barnes, Julian. A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters. New York: Vintage/Random, 1989.
- Barthes, Roland." The Discourse of History" Trans. Stephen Bann. Comparative Criticism: A Yearbook. Vol. 3. Ed.
E. S. Shaffer. Cambridge UP, 1981.
- Baker, Herschel, ed. The Later Renaissance in England: Nondramatic Verse and Prose, 1600-1660. Prospect Heights, IL:
- Cook, Bruce. "The World's History and Then Some in 10 1/2 Chapters."Los Angeles Daily News 7 Nov. 1989: 12.
- Dirda, Michael. "Voyages on a Sea of Troubles." Washington Post 22 Oct 1989: X4.
- Gascorek, Andrzy. Post-War British Fiction: Realism and After. London: Edward Arnold, 1995.
- Kermode, Frank. The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1967.
---. The Genesis of Secrecy: On the Interpretation of Narrative. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1979.
- Kidder, Gayle. "The World According to Julian Barnes." San Diego Union-Tribune 5 Nov. 1989: E-1.
- Lentricchia, Frank. After the New Criticism. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1980.
- McGrath, Patrick. "Interview" (with Julian Barnes). Bomb 18-21 (1987): 20-23.
- Moseley, Merritt. Understanding Julian Barnes. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1997.
- Oates, Joyce Carol. Rev. of A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, by Julian Barnes. New York Times Book Review 1
Oct. 1989: 12-13.
- Rushdie, Salman. Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991. New York: Viking Penguin, 1991.
- Saunders, Kate. "From Flaubert's Parrot to Noah's Woodworm." Sunday Times (London) 18 June 1989: G8-9.
- Stuart, Alexander. "A Talk With Julian Barnes." Los Angeles Times Book Review 15 Oct 1989: 15.
Copyright 1999 Brian Finney