I thoroughly enjoyed A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters by Julian Barnes for its lively and witty storytelling, its multiplicity of writing styles and its refusal to fit.
It’s a novel. It says so right there on the dust jacket. And, at his website, Barnes calls it a novel.
Yet, it’s unlike just about any novel you’ve ever read.
Essentially, the ten and a half chapters are 13 short stories. (One of the chapters is called “Three Simple Stories.” The “half” chapter, titled “Parenthesis,” seems to be a meditation by Barnes on love and history. Still, who’s to say it isn’t, in fact, a literary tour-de-force in which the narrator “Julian Barnes” isn’t actually the Julian Barnes who is doing the writing.)
Nine of the stories are fictional, but then there is “Parenthesis” which seems to be an essay. Another essay, more straight-forward, is one of the “Three Simple Stories,” and it looks at the Biblical account of Jonah in the whale.
“Shipwreck” is about the sinking of the Medusa, the survival of some of its sailors on a raft and Theodore Gericault’s great painting The Raft of the Medusa. Another of the “Three Simple Stories” is a non-fiction account of the ill-starred voyage of the liner St. Louis in 1939 carrying some 900 Jewish refugees trying to escape Nazi Germany. (The third of the “Simple Stories” is a fictional account of a survivor of the sinking of the Titanic.)
True, there is a relatively new literary subgenre, the novel-in-stories. But A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters, published in 1989, is an odd member of even that club.
Generally, the stories in a novel-in-stories are linked through common characters and a common setting.
But, as its title suggests, the 13 stories in the Barnes book span pretty much the breadth of human time — from Noah and his Ark, to a medieval court case, to space travel, to the threat of nuclear war, to a look at life in heaven. They are set in the Middle East and South America, in North Carolina and the Adriatic Sea, in France and Dublin and Cuba.
And the pieces in A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters have no common characters.
Except they sort of do.
There is a woman from one story who turns up as a skeleton (a non-speaking, non-acting part) in another.
That’s pretty minor. But then there’s Noah, who is a main focus of the first story “Stowaway” and is mentioned in just about every other piece. So is his Ark.
More than that, there are Ark-like boats that populate many of these stories, often coming to bad ends — the Titanic, the St. Louis, the Medusa, a hijacked cruise ship, a raft in the jungle. Even Jonah’s whale could be thought of as a kind of Ark. So too the bishop’s throne in the story “The Wars of Religion” although that might be a bit of a stretch.
And there’re woodworms and, to a lesser extent, other such insects — termites, beetles — virtually everywhere in this book. A woodworm is the “Stowaway” of the first story and its narrator. It tells a hilarious tale about a clueless Noah and his conniving family who survive the long Ark voyage by eating animals. Hence, the lack today of many species mentioned in myths. Goodbye, unicorn.
Given the prominence of the Ark theme, there is a lot of two-by-two-ing in A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters. And a lot of judging and separating the clean and the unclean, a process that, in Barnes’s telling, always seems arbitrary, even in heaven.
Given the ubiquitousness of woodworms and such, there is a lot of crumbling from within. Consider the throne of one 16th century bishop:
Then he rose, ascended the simple step to the altar, turned to face the congregation and lowered himself upon his throne. Oh malevolent day! Oh malevolent invaders! And how the Bishop fell, striking his head upon the altar step and being hurled against his will into a state of imbecility.
Those “malevolent invaders” are woodworms that have dined so long on the wood of the throne that it could no longer support the bishop’s weight. In “The Wars of Religion,” they are on trial — in absentia — for this outrage, threatened with excommunication. It’s a very funny piece, very silly with its constant references of the bishop being “in a state of imbecility,” yet, as Barnes mentions in a note, it is based on actual cases from that era.
Nowhere in particular
As Barnes sees it, the history of the world is an endless series of Ark-like voyages headed nowhere in particular. Each of us on an Ark-like voyage. And each of us has an Ark that is being slowly but surely eaten away by some form of woodworm.
A fairly bleak outlook. Yes. But then there is his “Parentheses,” a paean to love in all its oddity.
Our love doesn’t help us survive… Yet it gives us our individuality, our purpose….So is it just a rogue mutation? We don’t need it for the expansion of our race; indeed, it’s inimical to orderly civilization. Sexual desire would be much easier if we didn’t have to worry about love. Marriage would be more straightforward — and perhaps more lasting — if we were not itchy for love, exultant on its arrival, fearful of its departure.
If we look at the history of the world, it seems surprising that love is included. It’s an excrescence, a monstrosity, some tardy addition to the agenda….Tertullian said of Christian belief that it was true because it was impossible. Perhaps love is essential because it’s unnecessary.
Or, on an Ark, riddled with woodworm, absolutely necessary.
Patrick T. Reardon