A Worm's Eye View of History: Julian Barnes's A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters

Article excerpt

The title of Julian Barnes's 1989 novel, A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters is at once playful and provocative. Its first half only differs from Sir Walter Raleigh's The History of the World in its substitution of an indefinite for a definite article. Like Raleigh's History it begins with Genesis. But unlike Raleigh, Barnes does not subscribe to a providential interpretation of history. Where Raleigh's was a monumental attempt to record the history of the world starting with the Creation, Barnes's modest book runs to some 300 pages and eschews any pretence of continuity or comprehensiveness. His is merely a history among many possible histories of the world.

The second half of the title of Barnes's book describes a work that is absurdly brief for such a subject, while its provocative inclusion of a "1/2" chapter draws attention to itself. This half chapter, "Parenthesis," is the only section of the book to use a didactic, mildly professorial voice, with no apparent hint of irony or humor. It forms the same function that "The Preface" does in Raleigh's History in offering a rationale and apology. Interestingly both writers see history as necessarily fragmented. Barnes's entire book can be seen as a series of digressions from those events normally considered central to any historical account of the world. At the same time Barnes has insisted that this half-chapter is the one occasion in the book where he dispenses with the masks of the fiction writer and offers his personal truth, in much the way that El Greco is the only character in the "Burial of Count Orgaz" who looks out at the spectator, saying in effect, according to Barnes, "I did this. You've got any complaints, look at me. [. . .] I'm responsible" (Stuart). Yet this rare moment of truthfulness is offered in the form of a digression--a digression in a work that is nothing but a series of digressions from the supposed mainstream of history.

Clearly in this book, as in Flaubert's Parrot (1984), Barnes is adopting an ironic approach to history as a genre. Barnes has said of A History of the World that it "deals with one of the questions that obsessed Braithwaite in that book [Flaubert's Parrot]. And that is: How do we seize the past?" (Cook). He would appear to agree with Barthes's objection to what he calls "the fallacy of representation" attaching to traditional historical discourse. In "The Discourse of History" Barthes sees historical discourse as "in its essence a form of ideological elaboration, or to put it more precisely, an imaginary elaboration" (16). Barthes believes that "[t]he historian is not so much a collector of facts as a collector and relater of signifiers; that is to say, he organizes them with the purpose of establishing positive meaning and filling the vacuum of pure, meaningless series" (16). Barnes adopts a similar view of history in his book: "We make up a story to cover the facts we don't know or can't accept; we keep a few facts and spin a new story round them" (240).

The strategy that probably most distinguishes this book from the rest of Barnes's fictional work is its use of fragmented episodes from the history of the world, its use of what Levi-Strauss has called bricolage. Asked in what sense his book, A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, was not just a book of short stories, Barnes replied, "Well, it was conceived as a whole and executed as a whole. Things in it thicken and deepen" (Cook). The questions that need asking, then, are whether and how this book generates discursive meaning(s) over the totality of its very different chapters. Are some of its meanings produced by the sum of its multiple texts? Is there a shape, a beginning and end to this book? Does it qualify as what Frank Kermode has called one of those fictions "whose ends are consonant with origins, and in concord, however unexpected, with their precedents," fictions that "satisfy our needs" by giving significance to our lives, seeing that we live our whole lifetime in the midst of things (Sense 5, 7)? …