Cambridge Literature is a series of literary texts edited for study by students aged 14-18 in English-speaking classrooms. It will include novels, poetry, short stories, essays, travel-writing and other non-fiction. The series will be extensive and open-ended and will provide school students with a range of edited texts taken from a wide geographical spread. It will feature writing in English from various genres and differing times. A History of the World in 101/2 Chapters by Julian Barnes is edited by Ron Middleton of the University of Reading.
This book is - in a way - an English answer to Perec's La vie mode d'emploi. Like Perec there is a grandiose title that can't be taken literally; unlike Perec it is subverted by the little joke of the half-chapter. As in Perec, the different chapters bring in a wide range of different literary styles and genres, with recurrent themes and images linking them together, but without any single narrative line running through the book. Unlike Perec, Barnes doesn't bother with an explicit architectural framework to link the chapters together: it would be possible to read the book as a short-story collection (although not many short-story collections mix fiction with art-criticism or philosophical essays on the nature of love).
The most important image in the book, touched upon in almost ever chapter, is Noah's Ark, and the idea of the uncertainty of the human condition that it implies. Barnes is certainly being English and whimsical in his choice of narrator for the first chapter, but after that it gets more serious.
Barnes doesn't seem to have much trust in rainbows. At the centre of the book there is an extended discussion of the "Raft of the Medusa" incident and Géricault's celebrated painting of the raft. First we get a summary of what happened after the frigate Medusa was wrecked, drawn from the accounts of the survivors, then we get a detailed critical analysis of the painting. Obviously, we are supposed to put this account of real humans, saved from drowning by killing and eating their companions, side by side with our nursery book ideas of animals going in two by two, as well as looking carefully at the way such subjects are represented in art.
In fact, as with "Flaubert’s Parrot," some might argue that "A History of the World" is not really a novel at all but rather a collection of tangentially connected stories that are as much documentary as they are fiction. What the book clearly is not is linear story-telling, mixing as it does a retelling of the Noah’s Ark story from the perspective of a stowaway with a detailed analysis of a painting that hangs in the Louvre and an archeological expedition to Mt. Ararat.
It all does make sense ultimately—the chapters actually do progress from Genesis to Revelations—and much of what it contains is both philosophically challenging and very funny.
I have reached a stage in my reading where I am wanting to get more from a book than an enjoyable read. I want to connect with the text in a more meaningful way. I want to read critically. I want to read the author as well as the written words.
This book was for me a lesson in literary theory - Postmodernism. Of course I am only just beginning to understand where studying literature will take me but with this one I really did take more of an active role in the reading process.
It's a book for raising questions, something that made me think a lot about all kinds of things. Many of the questions I have had floating about in my mind for some time. Thoughts about life, what it is to be human and how we as humans connect with our world and each other.
So what's it all about? Well do not try to figure it out and expect answers or any eureka moments because I do believe doing so would be a mistake and will affect your enjoyment of some brilliant story-telling. For me it is a reflection of life on earth as a human race since life began ( more or less ) and essentially summed up that means a bloody mess with a few bits that seem to be connected somehow throughout the history of time.
I took this extract from the book which I think sums up what I am trying to say about it from Chapter 8 - Upstream which is in an epistolary form - ooh get me picking up the literature lingo already:
" .... it's about the sort of conflict running through human life in every time and every civilisation. Discipline v Permissiveness. Sticking to the letter of the law v sticking to its spirit. Means and ends. Doing the right thing for the wrong reason v doing the wrong thing for the right reason.
This all makes it sound pretty heavy but it is far from it. It's funny, quirky, moving, thought-provoking, thrilling and utterly gripping. This is the first book I have read that I really wanted to savour and take my time over. It's the first book I have read that I have actually shouted out to when Mr Barnes playfully teases us with a ' forgotten' name in the first chapter and like being in a pub quiz team I had to shout out the answer. Totally engaging.
Every chapter is different in style and voice. You will read the story of Noah like you have never read it before - Noah pops up throughout as one of the threads that binds the chapters together. You will have a lesson in art appreciation - which was one of my favourite chapters as I have a thing for art too. You will attend the trial of woodworms who will also feature regularly throughout. You will go on a cruise or two both of which will be nothing like you expected and also very relevant to what's happening in the world today. Ships and the sea are another theme. Ooh I forgot Jonah - that was a fab bit. There is lots of searching going on too and a quote related to searching which I think really sums up the intention of the book but I will let you find that quote yourself - because I forgot to write it down!
This was the kind of reading experience that I have been craving. It was enjoyable, it gave me pleasure. It was thought-provoking - it fed my soul. It was a learning journey and made me explore further into the realms of critical reading and literary theory.
There is an interesting essay on this book by Brian Finney which can be found on the net.
A superb offering from Julian Barnes which I heartily recommend.
Many parts of the book flirted with perfection, but others, while quite good, seemed obscure in their contribution to the overall themes. They succeeded on their own terms, but not nearly enough in context of their exploration of the "history of the world" and its complication, decay, misapprehension, and tenuous promise of redemption.
Plus, there's a hilarious prosecution of termites for crimes against the church. Not to be missed.
PS: One of the stories is about The Raft of the Medusa, a 19th century painting by Theodore Gericault. Instead of making the reader Google it, there's a surprisingly generous color foldout of the work in the book. I thought that was a nice touch.
“I was a normal eighteen-year-old: shuttered, self conscious, untravelled and sneering; violently educated, socially crass, emotionally blurting.”
I immediately thought that if I was still this eighteen year old person then I might have found this book wonderfully enriching, but as I am not I don’t.
The novel was published in 1989 and has been hailed as a post-modern approach to the history of the world as a reflection of the human condition. I enjoyed some of the stories and appreciated some of the clever witty writing, but only when the crassness was not too overwhelming. Barnes references the story of Noah’s ark in every one of his stories I think, although I could not bring myself to search through the half chapter entitled Parenthesis (I had a feeling it was called Possession until I checked the contents list) to check this out. A mixed bag then that has amused and entertained many readers, but it didn’t do much for me especially as I knew where Mount Ararat was having seen it for myself. Three stars
PS I have got [Flaubert’s Parrot] on my shelf to read and I have a feeling I know exactly what it is going to be like, perhaps I can forget it is there.
The chapters do span the scope of what we call human history, from a re-telling of the story of Noah’s Ark from the perspective of a stowaway woodworm to a chapter clearly based on the 1985 PLF hijacking of the MS Achille Lauro. A playful jokiness reminiscent of Nabokov and concomitant preoccupation with the mythic (resembling Borges) informs the way in which the chapters speak to and resonate with one another; in “The Wars of Religion,” a Bishop sits down on this throne during a service in church, and immediately falls down due woodworm infestation. Church officials decide to bring suit for the slow, careful, destruction of the Bishop’s seat. Against whom do they file suit? The woodworms, of course. Even for fiction, this sounds twee and jokey, but it works in a most convincing way.
I think it works so well because these pieces do hang together as something more than a series of stories, and many of them provide fascinating things to think about. “Parenthesis” (which might be the half-chapter of the title) provides an almost essayistic analysis of love which I find didn’t at all detract from the novel’s progress. It’s told through the voice of a man laying next to a woman, desperate to fall asleep but unable to stop meditating on the power and mystery of human love. It quietly informs other chapters without letting Barnes’ authorial voice get in the way.
Another entire chapter is dedicated to a fictionalized account of Gericault’s rendering of perhaps his most-recognized painting, “The Raft of the Medusa.” Incorporating the “real life” (we quickly learn how perfunctory such labels are) accounts on which the painting is based, Barnes adeptly shows how Gericault selected details carefully, leaves others out, and made still others up, in order for the painting to ring true to the viewer. This immediately raises important questions about history and any mode of representation, more generally. How is history possible if we recognize it only as a true account of past events? Is the historian always a writer? Or, to put matters more explicitly, is she always a novelist?
Another theme that echoes throughout the novel is that of religion and its mystifying effects. Read without care, this can seem a harsh treatment of religion and the religious mindset. Noah is identified by the stowaway woodworm as a vicious drunk, the Catholic officials who try the woodworm for eating the Bishop’s throne come off as a little maniacal, and the last chapter coyly pokes fun at common ideas of Heaven. “Project Ararat” takes up a former astronaut who has had a religious conversion, and now has put his and his wife’s lives on hold to find Noah’s Ark. Despite coming from a conservative, Christian town, the locals have their reservations. The chapter ends with him having raised enough money to go on his mission. He finds the Ark, collects samples, and quickly returns home to have them tested. The tests show that they are no more than a couple hundred years old. This doesn’t matter, though. He is already planning his second mission next year, even more determined to find Noah’s remains. It’s not God that works in mysterious ways. It’s the human mind. That’s Barnes’ point.
Rarely do I find works of fiction so self-referential simultaneously so appealing. Barnes might be telling us about Noah’s Ark and Mount Ararat, but he’s telling us about very human, all too human, forces. Love, the weird preoccupations that perennially concern us, ideas – they’re all here, and not in the heavy-handed way we’re probably only too familiar with. This book is playful, and serious without taking itself too seriously, which gives it a coy sort of charm that’s nearly impossible to dislike.
While each story is very clever, and the connections that run through the book are fun to find, I found myself getting a little bored. The chapter titled "The Mountain" seemed to go on for much too long, and wasn't as witty as the others.
Nonetheless, I think this one is definitely worth reading. Even if it does become a bit slow in places, I can't argue with the mastery of Barnes in connecting all of these seemingly unconnected chapters, and in his ability to really make you think about the world around you.
I find most of the book worth reading. When you get to a part that bores you, skip it, it really doesn't get better. Enjoy the nuggets, treasures and jewels hidden here but don't keep digging expecting to find a mother lode of interestingness.
If there is a unifying arc in this book it is the Ark and Noah himself. The book opens with a story of the voyage of the Ark told from the point of view of stowaways (woodworms) ; others of this species are later the subject of a story about a court case seeking to excommunicate woodworms for having weakened a chair that tumbled a Bishop and reduced him to a “state of imbecility”. The story, The Mountain, recounts the history of a Miss Ferguson who, in the 1800s,with a paid travelling companion, Miss Logan, makes a pilgrimage to Mount Ararat where Miss Ferguson happily lies to down to die in a cave; her bones are found over 100 years later by a former US astronaut who, having walked on the moon, makes his own pilgrimage to Mount Ararat and believes he has found Noah’s bones when he comes upon the remains of Miss Ferguson. Through all of these, it seems to me, Barnes ridicules the permeability and utter flexibility of faith that sees portents and answers in the strangest places and can, in the end, rationalize anything with reference to faith and the belief that it is not for us to discern the mind of God. I am rather with Barnes in thinking of God’s “routine and fairly repellent morality” and his role as a “moral bully” in the story of Jonah and whale. Elsewhere, in another piece, Barnes muses on the lack of a “single Ark painting great enough to give the subject impetus and popularity. Or is it something in the story itself; maybe artists agreed that the Flood doesn’t’ show God in the best possible light?”
Barnes has a jaundiced view of the moral capacities of human beings especially as they are manifested through great ideas or great movements: “…it’s about the sort of conflict running through human life in every time and every civilization. Discipline v. permissivenss. Sticking to the letter of the law v. sticking to its spirit. Means and ends. Doing the right thing for the wrong reason v. doing the wrong thing for the right reason. How great ideas like the Church get bogged down in bureaucracy. How Christianity starts off as the religion of peace but ends up violent like other religions. You could say the same thing about Communism or anything else, any big idea.”
I like Barnes on history:
“History isn't what happened. History is just what historians tell us. There was a pattern, a plan, a movement, expansion, the march of democracy; it is a tapestry, a flow of events, a complex narrative, connected, explicable. One good story leads to another. First it was kings and archbishops with some offstage divine tinkering, then it was the march of ideas and the movements of masses, then little local events which mean something bigger, but all the time it's connections, progress, meaning, this led to this, this happened because of this. We, the readers of history, the sufferers from history, we scan the pattern for hopeful conclusions, for the way ahead. And we cling to history as a series of salon pictures, conversation pieces whose participants we can easily reimagine back into life, when all the time it's more like a multi-media collage, with paint applied by a decorator's roller rather than camel-hair brush.
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 overlap; strange links, impertinent connections.”
I especially liked Barnes’s exploration and parsing of the painting, “The Raft of the Medusa” by Gericault (1819) based on a true incident in which a French naval ship, the Medusa, ran aground; some got to shore, but at least 147 people were set adrift on a hurriedly fashioned raft; all but 15 died in the 13 days they were on the ocean; they survived starvation, dehydration, cannibalism and madness. Barnes takes the painting apart and invites us to consider different interpretations of what Gericault had in mind with his use of light, of the numbers of people (more than the 15 rescued in reality), how they are posed on the raft and what those postures mean; also, what the painting can say to us about the incident itself and more broadly about life and class and morality. Barnes notes that Gericault did not paint the necessary cannibalism, but I think there is a hint of it: the figure at the far left bottom on the raft is clearly just a torso that has been split open at the chest and cut off just below the ribs. At the bottom, almost centre is the naked body of a man lying in the lap of an older man who has his back turned on the rescue ship on the horizon; to the far right, also at the bottom, is the body of woman whom we see only from about the neck down, she is on her back, her legs naked and open, her modesty preserved with a drape of cloth. Both the male and female figures share the same lighting effects; in life they would represent regeneration and birth through the possibility of mating; in death they mock that.
A very interesting and thought-provoking book.
History of the World leads with a story of Noah's Ark, a motif which most of the stories tie back into in one way or another. God is vicious and wrathful, Noah's an angry drunk, and clearly there's resentment among the animals over their playing favorites with the clean and unclean business. But as the stories progress, the readers seem to be drawn farther and farther away from God - from the religious fundamentalists who misuse God to their own ends, to the vaguely spiritual, to the secular humanists, to a Heaven that's crafted democratically, with abounding pleasure and nothing adversative and no God in sight.
With such a loss comes an existential crisis: what is the reason for the world, and how should one live, in light of this lack of a religious and moral guiding force? Barnes does not quite answer this, but I do like a line spoken by an ex-astronaut gone off on a search for Noah's Ark: "I went 240,000 miles to see the moon - and it was the earth that was really worth looking at."
Maritime disasters: By far my favourite story is The Stowaway, a satirical description of Noah's ark from the perspective of stowaway woodworms. But there are also some gems later on, such as a shipwreck prompting cannibalism, the Titanic, Jonah and the whale, and a take on Jewish refugees in 1939 in limbo on the sea. The last three of these, encapsulated in Three Simple Stories, is probably my next favourite.
Art as propaganda: Barnes lays a particular emphasis, mostly satirical, on how historical or mythical events are treated in art. In The Shipwreck, he describes what a painting leaves out as much as what it includes, and how human interpretation motivates these choices. In the Titanic story, a survivor attempts to take part in a re-enactment of the ship's sinking.
Irreverence to religion: In The Wars of Religion, woodworms are threatened with excommunication for attacking a church and humiliating a priest. Noah is frequently mentioned: in separate stories, a fanatically religious woman and a credulent astronaut seek Noah's ark on a mountain.
Philosophy of life: The second half of the novel focuses more on philosophical questions and attitudes to life. In Upstream!, an actor travels to an exotic jungle and comes to terms with a colleague drowning in a raft accident. There's an isolated discourse on love in the half-chapter Parenthesis. The final chapter, The Dream, is an extreme account of a life where every desire is met.
A History of the World in 10½ Chapters is "clever" in the sense there are many interlocking elements, even while the stories themselves cover a range of epochs, perspectives and literary forms. But is this really clever, or just a gimmick? I lean towards the former. My only complaint is the absence of any memorable characters or relationships. Overall, I found the novel highly readable and would certainly recommend it to those looking for something different.