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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 146

The novel is a collection of short stories with familiar and fictional characters. The first story, "The Stowaway," has a biblical character, Noah, and a fictional one, Woodworm, involved in a series of events related to a biblical story. The author tweaks the story of Noah's ark. In his narrative,...

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The novel is a collection of short stories with familiar and fictional characters. The first story, "The Stowaway," has a biblical character, Noah, and a fictional one, Woodworm, involved in a series of events related to a biblical story. The author tweaks the story of Noah's ark. In his narrative, God saves Noah because he is the most well-behaved of the bad batch. At this point, the reader realizes that this novel doesn't describe the history of the world from a familiar perspective, but rather, it describes it from the author's viewpoint. The remaining nine chapters are stories with different plots—from terrorist encounters to romantic tales to tragedies.

Anyone interested in this book should have an open mind and be ready for anything before reading it. The way the writer mixes different genres and still manages to come up with something interesting is absolute genius.

A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2225

A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, Julian Barnes’s fifth novel (chosen by The New York Times Book Review as one of the Best Books of 1989 and shortlisted for Great Britain’s Booker Prize), is a work much easier to describe than to summarize, which is to say that it resists being reduced to less than what it is: a deeply—and by turns also playfully—meditative text. It is multitoned, multistyled, multivoiced, and indeed, multigenred. Neither conventional novel (it is too diverse) nor unified novellike story collection on the order of James Joyce’s Dubliners (1914) or William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses (1942), it exemplifies what Gary Saul Morson has termed “threshold literature”—work intended by its author to exist on the boundary between genres, sending its reader ambiguous, even conflicting, signals as to how it is to be read and by what generic rules it is to be classified. Like Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), Barnes’s highly acclaimed third novel, this work transgresses boundaries frequently and variously, calling attention to its own radical heterogeneity and its author’s ruminative genius. In subverting genres, Barnes’s novel necessarily subverts the reader’s expectations and, consequently, his or her efforts to know the text, to classify it in order to control it. The defeat of the reader is very much to the point in so far as the novel may be said to be about defeats, failures, and losses, and more especially about those subversive triumphs (including the author’s) that may be achieved against the odds and within the limitations imposed both by literature and by life.

The novel begins, subversively enough, with a decidedly unorthodox account of Noah and the ark narrated (as the reader only gradually discovers) by Anobium domesticum, more familiarly known as the woodworm. The woodworm’s Noah, unlike the Bible’s, is an inflexible and generally incompetent tyrant, blindly obedient to the oppressive God who has saved him for no better reason than Noah’s having been the best of a very bad lot. Along the narrative way, the woodworm narrator revises (down) not only God, Noah, the Bible, and the overly credulous reader made in Noah’s chosen image, but science as well. Charles Darwin, it seems, was wrong. There was no natural selection; there were only Noah’s whims, prejudices, and appetite for animal flesh: his makeshift, arbitrary selection of which species were to be saved, which abandoned, and which eaten. Against Noah’s selfish unconcern and against too the reader’s no less dangerous naivete’ and selective (generally self- serving) memory, the transhistorical woodworm offers itself as trustworthy guide, free of both constraining obligations and mankind’s flattering delusions of grandeur. “We had stowed away, survived and escaped—all without entering into any fishy covenants with God or Noah. We had done it by ourselves.”

For the expectant reader, “The Stowaway” prepares the way for a revisionist and entirely bogus, cheerfully indeterminate narrative not unlike Mel Brooks’s similarly titled film, History of the World, Part 1 (1981), a retelling of familiar stories, chronologically arranged and ironically told. Barnes’s reader soon finds himself thwarted, however, his expectations largely unfulfilled. Indeed, for the reader (quite unlike Brooks’s viewer) to survive at all, he or she must prove as cunning and resourceful as the woodworm—which disappears entirely as narrator. (The woodworm or its descendants will figure in a number of the subsequent chapters and will prove, even when absent, deconstructively present in them all.)

Going from chapter 1 to chapter 2, the reader turns a page and leaps millennia in a single bound, transported from deluge to a more contemporary and dismayingly commonplace disaster. Exit Noah, enter Franklin Hughes, host of a cultural tour of the Mediterranean Sea aboard the aptly named Santa Euphemia. “The Visitors” of the chapter title turn out to be not woodworms but Arab terrorists who kill most of the international group of tourists on the hour, two by two, before being themselves dispatched by an American Special Forces unit. Along the way the suave but superficial, almost loathesome Hughes will be forced to do the terrorists’ bidding, playing the part of their spokesman in order to protect his current sexual partner. His seemingly selfless act is not without a hint of self-interest and certainly not without rather dire consequences for those tourists who will be forced to take her place. As even this brief summary shows, despite the chronological leap, the reader begins to perceive parallels between the first two chapters, paradigmatic rather than syntagmatic in nature: The ark becomes the Santa Euphemia; Noah/God becomes the terrorists; the terrorists are, like the woodworm, hidden; and the woodworm here and in subsequent chapters will undergo a transformation of its own, reversing its syllables to become the metaphysical wormwood that Hughes is forced to drink when he accepts the terrorists’ conditions.

Time, tone, form, and style all again change in chapter 3, “The Wars of Religion”: a transcript (preceded by notes on the source and the translation) of an absurdly argued legal debate that may have been used in the training of jurists in sixteenth century France. The text proves not only farcical but also mediated (a translation of a copy of a copy) and incomplete (the last words of the court’s decision have apparently been destroyed “by some species of termite,” a near relative of the defendant in the case, the woodworm). Whether the woodworm (or its ancestors) can be held responsible for the destruction of the bishop’s chair, and therefore for the fall that results in his imbecility, or whether (as the attorney for the woodworm claims) the insects have acted as nothing more or less than instruments of God’s will is one of the finer questions debated—absurdly so for today’s readers, though not necessarily for those in the sixteenth century. Barnes makes no direct connection between the travesty of justice and law here and the obvious injustice done in chapter 2; the tonal incompatibility notwithstanding, none is needed.

By the end of chapter 4, the reader may well begin to suspect that the novel has an alternating seriocomic tonal rhythm as well as a stock of recurrent images, as Barnes continues to play his variations on a still-undefined theme. “The Survivor” is at first simply “she,” and later “Kath,” who uses what she believes to be the female’s power to sense what others, especially men such as her abusive husband, Greg, cannot see in order to escape nuclear destruction (the time is shortly after the Chernobyl disaster) and her bad marriage. Suddenly (therefore, at first, inexplicably) Kath finds herself in a hospital, suffering from what her doctor calls “persistent victim syndrome” but what she contends is nothing more than her unwillingness to see as others see, to make their kinds of causal connections. Again suddenly, Kath awakes on her boat, reaches an island, and watches as the female of her pair of cats gives birth. She is alone, free, happy, and hopeful. Although the reader may well sympathize, he may nevertheless feel perplexed about the ontological status (even within a declared fiction) of Kath’s postapocalyptic paradise. Which was the dream—Kath in the hospital or Kath on the island?

To such a question chapter 5 provides only the most oblique kind of answer, presenting an intuitive rather than causal link in a novel which the reader now suspects proceeds not by causality and chronology but instead by associative leaps of “imaginative sympathy.” The chapter’s first part presents what the reader assumes are the historical facts of the disastrous French expedition to Senegal in 1816, including the wreck of the Medusa and the subsequent political scandal in France. The second part concerns the compositional history and various possible meanings of the famous Theodore Gericault painting generally known as The Raft of the Medusa. Mixing fact and speculation, the narrator transforms the painted object into an ambiguous sign that implicates and (if the narrator is right) even includes the viewer, here the novel’s reader as well. Viewer and reader are subject to the same destructive process to which the depicted scene, to the contemporaneous French audience at least, gave such eloquent testimony and to which the painted surface (along with its perhaps woodworm-infested frame) must in time also succumb. Inserting a fold-out reproduction of the painting between the chapter’s two parts, Barnes situates the aesthetic work between event and interpretation, making the painting function in a twofold manner, simultaneously separating and joining, culminating one sequence and beginning another.

The painting also briefly, almost arbitrarily, figures in chapter 6, “The Mountain.” The Raft of the Medusa is the work that Colonel Fergusson, a materialist and skeptic, does not take his daughter Amanda to see during its exhibition in Dublin in 1821 (she later goes alone). Instead, he takes her to view another representation of the same general subject, a ten-thousand-square-foot panorama, the financial success of which (the Colonel says) proves its aesthetic superiority. Amanda, however, believes in art and even more in God. In 1839, two years after her father’s death, she makes a pilgrimage to Ararat, accompanied by a Miss Logan, in order to intercede for the soul that her father claimed he never had. During the descent, she inexplicably falls and just as inexplicably decides to remain on the mountain, presumably to wait for a sign from God—inevitably, however, to die of exposure. Against Miss Logan’s dismay and the Colonel’s earlier disbelief; Miss Fergusson posits her single-minded determination: “There always appear to be two explanations of everything. That is why we have been given free will, in order that we may choose the correct one. In a novel as various in form and as ambiguous in meaning as this, such a view must strike the reader as both odd and dangerous, but not so odd or so dangerous that the reader may not agree with Miss Fergusson when she says that “mainly ... it was a matter of faith.”

The dizzying and dazzling profusion of narratives and interpretive possibilities continues in chapter 7, “Three Simple Stories” of arks, disasters, and ironic survivals. One is personal—a man disguises himself as a woman to escape the sinking Titanic aboard the underpopulated lifeboat 13; another is mythical—the story of Jonah and the whale; and the third is historical—the nearly circular voyage of the St. Louis, the “ship of fools,” which set sail from Germany in 1939 only to find that no country wanted its 937 Jewish passengers any more than the Nazis did. This voyage of the damned—human woodworms—was a tragic farce, a monstrous parody of Noah’s ark, The Raft of the Medusa, and the legal niceties of “The War of Religions” all rolled into one and made all the more horrifying by Barnes’s perfectly matter-of-fact narration. Juxtaposed in this way, the three simple stories do not so much explain or illustrate as resonate.

By chapter 8, the reader should be ready for anything, even a collection of postcards, letters, and telegrams written to an unresponsive lover, Pippa, by Charlie, an actor going “Upstream” on location in Venezuela to make a film about two Jesuits who made the same journey several centuries before. Idyll turns comic nightmare when the Indians hired to play their ancestors quietly and inexplicably betray the film company—appropriately enough during a raft scene—just as Charlie has betrayed Pippa with another woman, as Pippa has betrayed him with her silence, and as God (Charlie feels) has betrayed the film company with his silence.

God does speak in chapter 9—to astronaut Spike Tiggler on the moon in 1974, commanding him to find Noah. The remains that Tiggler finds on Ararat are not Noah’s but (as the reader knows) Amanda Fergusson’s. Disabused by scientific evidence, Tiggler, the scapegrace turned true believer (based on Apollo astronaut James Irwin), is last heard announcing a second Project Ararat. Such faith strikes the reader as at once noble and daft. A similar ambivalence characterizes chapter 10, “The Dream,” in which the anonymous narrator dreams “the oldest dream of all”: “I dreamt that I woke up.” He awakes in a democratized heaven—even Adolf Hitler is there—where everyone gets not what he deserves but exactly what he wants. Such fulfillment proves curiously unsatisfying: “After a while, getting what you want all the time is very close to not getting what you want all the time.” This, he learns, is the reason that everyone in heaven eventually chooses to die.

Such are the novel’s ten parts, but tucked in between 8 and 9 is the half-chapter, “Parenthesis,” about dreams and history and art and, above all, that stowaway, love—the woodworm in this wormwood world. “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.” So is art, for it, too, proves essential because it is unnecessary. It, too, proves that “there is more to us than us,” more than history, with its illusion of causality and progress, allows. Art, like love-autonomous, parasitic, subversive— “justifies” the catastrophes that history can only record. Art justifies not because it explains but because it complements, makes right. It offsets the rest, resisting the final word, the final form, stubbornly offering instead its own penultimacies, half-chapters, and ambiguous affirmations.

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