A History of the World in 10½ Chapters by Julian Barnes


I’ve had ‘A History of the World in 10½ Chapters’ on my “to read” list for almost 15 years, but kept putting it off. Now I know why I was dithering. Despite the glowing commendations of university professors and English literature elitists, I simply could not warm to the text, clever though it was.

A loosely connected series of 10 1/2 short stories, art reviews, re-imagined histories, personal ramblings, epistolary travelogues and personal anecdotes; this is the epitome of post-modern fiction. Julian Barnes ties together his mish-mash of tales with the recurrence of woodworm & reindeer, pilgrimage & shipwreck, doubt & faith.

Eclectic. Unorthodox. Not to every taste. Let me say up front, if you like linear plot development, THIS IS NOT FOR YOU.

Settings include Mount Ararat (where the Ark made landfall), the moon, heaven, a jungle, a monastery, and a French courthouse. My main obstacles to enjoyment were the arrogant, foolish and misogynistic male narrators (complemented by the delusional, judgmental female narrators) and the author’s struggles with religious belief and Biblical history.

The voices are mostly male, including: a worm, an academic, a lawyer, an actor, an astronaut and the author himself. The story about the egotistical academic and the psychology of self-interest made me cringe and nearly put down the book altogether. In a similar way, the stories told from Barnes’ own point of view felt highly self-indulgent, like intellectual masturbation.

I did like the piece on Gericault’s “Scene of Shipwreck” which looked at the wreck of the Medusa and told the story of the boat, the survivors, the artist and the process. Nice bit of art analysis. I also thought the concluding story about the difficulties of making Heaven satisfactory was a fun little thought-experiment.

Putting on my feminist glasses, I have to suggest that the women in the book – an insane cat-lady obsessed with her ex-boyfriend, a religious fanatic obsessed with her dead father, a deceitful and narcissistic astronaut’s wife – are all utterly despicable and essentially defined by their relationship to significant men in their lives. Loathsome.

If you want something similar, only better, try the following…

1) Retelling of Noah’s ArkTimothy Findley’s ‘Not Wanted on the Voyage’

2) Funny fake legal trialsIan Frazier’s ‘Coyote V. Acme’

3) Bold, multilingual Victorian-era female explorers who brave exotic landsElizabeth Peters’ ‘Crocodile on the Sandbank’

4) Crazy American astronautsStephen King’s short story “I Am the Doorway” in the collection ‘Night Shift’

2 of 5 stars / bookshelves: read, 320 pages, Publisher: Vintage Canada (1990)
Read from April 2 to April 22, 2012

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