A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters by Julian Barnes

God’s all-time bestseller, The Book, might be described (I wish to offend no one) as metafiction; it was written, divinely, by its main character, Who appears in various forms, at crucial cliff-hanger moments, as Himself. Unfortunately, so the story goes, God’s sixth-day creation, us — or more accurately our ancestors — made a muddle of His work, so God recruited Noah & Sons to cruise.

Mr. Julian Barnes launches A History of the World in 10½ Chapters (Knopf, 307 pages) with his own mock-knowing version of history, as reported by a wiseacre, truth-telling woodworm (baby termite?) stowaway, one of several who survived the trip. Why the need to sneak? Woodworms were not one of God’s chosen species, which leads Woodworm-Barnes to point out, amusingly but none too subtly, that those not chosen did not survive:

…Some creatures were simply Not Wanted On Voyage. That was the case with us; that’s why we had to stow away. And any number of beasts, with a perfectly good legal argument for being a separate species, had their claims dismissed.

Chosen by God? Chosen by Noah? This is more than enough to get those History/Memory/Association juices gushing: blameless refugees slaughtered because of “bushy tufts down your backbone.” You were born that way. Keep out.

More chapters of voyages follow: luxury liner hijacked, a dreaming woman and her cats go to sea, the St. Louis with her refugee tourists sail on and on, an expedition to Ararat seeks the true Ark. History as story, with its conflicting ‘facts’ (just like The Book), has become this World’s main character. It’s the familiar, but nonetheless worthy plot/game of, What really happened?

Here, concerning Jonah in the whale:

Of course, we recognize that the story can’t have any basis in truth. We are sophisticated people, and we can tell the difference between reality and myth. A whale might swallow a man, we can allow for that as plausible; but once inside he could not possibly live.

Then: testimony of one James Bartley, sailor on Star of the East, 1891. The whale was flensed. Bartley was found, blinded by gastric juices, but alive:

…I realized that I was being swallowed by a whale…a wall of flesh surrounded me and hemmed me in on every side, yet the pressure was not painful and the flesh easily gave way…

Voyages, animals, survival, the carousel of history and story: in each succeeding chapter, these recurring themes gain a cumulative effect in the mind of the reader, until Chapter 5, Shipwreck. Here Barnes becomes a magician. The events of 1816 – 1819 are summarized: the ship Medusa strikes a reef, survivors are rescued from their raft two weeks later. An account of the voyage and rescue is published and becomes a sensation. Theodore Gericault paints the scene. Barnes, or his narrator, asks, “How do you turn catastrophe into art?”

The answer, detailed in eight parts, lies in what Gericault did not paint. He experiments, he eliminates. Barnes explains every step of the “process,” that voyage which Gericault (writers too!) embarks upon – and survives – “Monsieur Gericault, your shipwreck is certainly no disaster,” says King Louis.

Truth to life, at the start, to be sure; yet once the process gets under way, truth to art is the greater allegiance. The incident never took place as depicted; the numbers are inaccurate; the cannibalism is reduced to literary reference…The raft has been cleaned up as if for…a queasy-stomached monarch: the strips of human flesh have been housewifed away, and everyone’s hair is as sleek as a painter’s new-bought brush.

For me, this is the soul of 10½ Chapters. I read and reread for the pleasure of what Mr. Barnes was sharing — with Gericault, and me — that process taking place on Gericault’s canvas (changing proportion, shadow, color as he paints) and that simultaneous process of prose, wondrous as Barnes analyzes Gericault’s thoughts. And how could Barnes know Gericault’s thoughts? He looks, he imagines. Can we know, really know? We see the finished painting as inevitable, its marvelous portrait of men on a raft, lost, despairing, surviving: “Catastrophe has become art.” Imagination explains; the fiction of paint displays truth, but not forever. Paint disintegrates, woodworms attack. This is divine.

The World’s ½ chapter is love’s chapter, narrated by a sleepless man, who tells us he may be Julian Barnes. As he lies beside his wife, he thinks of his love for her, and continues to tell us about the intricacies and complications of love, life, and much too much more about the human condition:

And I’m not saying love will make you happy…If anything, I tend to believe that it will make you unhappy: either immediately unhappy, as you are impaled by incompatibility, or unhappy later, when the woodworm has quietly been gnawing…But you can believe this and still insist that love is our only hope.

The last chapter is The Dream: we are in heaven, or Heaven, which is a schoolmarm disappointment after all that earthly, monumental striving and suffering.

Finally, is The World in 10½ a novel? For some readers, Yes: its thread of themes holds it together; their affect is cumulative; stories begin with an ostensibly cleansed world, and end in heaven. For some readers, No, it is a series of chapters, moving, witty, at times heavy with lessons. But one chapter in particular is well worth its entire World.

–Jeffra Hays, author of Cocoa Almond Darling (2011).

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