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

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

Publisher: Picador (Pan Books)
309 (Paperback)
Form: Composite Novel
Series: Standalone


Beginning with an unlikely stowaway’s account of life on board Noah’s Ark, A History of the World in 10½ Chapters presents a surprising, subversive fictional history of earth told from several kaleidoscopic perspectives. Noah disembarks from his ark but he and his Voyage are not forgotten: they are revisited in on other centuries and other climes – by a Victorian spinster mourning her father, by an American astronaut on an obsessive personal mission. Elsewhere a guest lecturer on board a cruise ship in the Aegean is placed in a cruel dilemma, we journey to the Titanic, to the Amazon, to the raft of the Medusa, and to an ecclesiastical court in medieval France where a bizarre case is about to begin…

This is no ordinary history, but something stranger, a challenge and a delight for the reader’s imagination. Ambitious yet accessible, witty and playfully serious, this is the work of a brilliant novelist.

From the Back Cover of the 2009 Vintage Books edition
My own 1990 copy has no blurb

This is an odd book and I had some difficulty deciding how to classify it. Most reviews and booksellers I could find call it a novel but some also call it a short story collection, I decided, in the end, to go with ‘composite novel’. Each chapter can stand on its own as a short story (though I would hesitate to call them all that – some read more like essays) and, although there are links and references to other chapters in the book, a reader would be perfectly able to dip in and out of this book like any other collection of stories. What you would miss by doing that, however, are the thematic links and the evolution of these themes over the course of the book. Despite being quite an apparently disparate collection, each story is obviously intended and written for the purpose of being read as a chapter of a larger novel, rather than as a series of short standalones. It’s an interesting approach and not one I’ve ever really experienced before. I had fun trying to pick up all the connections and references between the chapters – Noah’s Ark being most obvious – and some chapters did get me thinking. However, a couple, I’m almost ashamed to say, simply left me quite bored.

The first chapter – told from the perspective of a mysterious ‘stowaway’ animal on Noah’s ark – is really the highlight of this book. It’s a wonderful, funny, and completely irreverent take on the practicalities of the story anyone from a Christian background was brought up on. How did all the animals fit in one boat? Were any left behind? How were just two chosen from each species? How were they stopped from eating each other? How did just a handful of humans manage to muck out an ark containing the entire range of species on the earth? The stowaway gives a rather damning account of the hardships of dealing with these practicalities that were forced on the animals who had done nothing themselves to earn god’s anger or punishment. The narrator also provides answers to less practical issues and heads into the more imaginative questions – telling us what happened to the unicorn, the basilisk, the behemoth. All the animals from mythology, we are told, existed before the Food. Funnily enough no dinosaurs are mentioned, but that’s what it made me think of: the early european palaeontologists who thought that dinosaur bones were the remains of creatures or biblical giants who didn’t escape the Great Flood. The story is really about Noah of course, and indeed the whole of humanity – its violence and its hypocrisy – viewed through the eyes of a detested creature that humanity barred from the Ark and would have been left to drown. The final reveal, after his ‘true’ account of the story, of just what animal the narrator is was inspired.

Unfortunately after the brilliance of the first chapter nothing else in the book quite matches up. They’re solid stories most of them, pretty good in fact, but lacking that touch of brilliance from Chapter One. I appreciated some of them more for the little references they made back to Chapter One – the thematic centre of the collection – than I did for their own stories. But that’s a hazard of writing a selection of stories in such varied styles; here we have first person, third person, third person omniscient, a third person/first person mix that questions which version of events is true, epistolary, dead narrator etc. etc. With so varied a selection people are going to have their favourite style and story so, while I enjoyed most of the others and sometimes really enjoyed them, my favourite was the first.

The chapters I found myself enjoying most after the first, therefore, weren’t the short-story fiction chapters, but the historical factual ones – Five and Seven – that gave accounts of real events, disasters and strange stories that happened at sea: the wreck of the Medusa, the Titanic, the voyage of St Louis. The horrific, tragedies of real people felt even more striking when compared to the fictional struggles in the rest of the book. I even found the essay-like second half of chapter Five – a potentially quite dry analysis of a famous painting depicting one of these events – far more interesting and compelling a read than the moral quandary of Franklin Hughes in chapter Two. Maybe I’m meant to, maybe that’s the point, and I’m sure which chapters you prefer says more about you than it does about the book. I am a history student after all, it’s hardly surprising I’m more drawn to these.

After a lot of pondering, and deciding to avoid spoilers and not review each chapter individually, am giving my final rating as four stars. Every chapter was solid in its own right – apart from the ‘Parenthesis’ 1/2 chapter which felt like the worst sort of obnoxious lecture on the nature of love and what my emotions should be. Some chapters I enjoyed more than others but that’s the nature of this type of book, everyone’s going to have favourites. Without the first chapter I would probably award 3.5 stars so it seems only fair, given how much I loved the first chapter and the way references to it and thematic links back were woven through the whole book, to award an extra half star back for it.

An odd read, but in some ways quite a thought-provoking one – though not as thought-provoking as I suspect it wants to be. You can pretty much skip the ‘Parenthesis’ chapter without missing much, and that the final chapter is a bit of a letdown to end the book on – the insights of how boring heaven would really be just don’t seem particularly new or exciting and simply left me with a ‘well duh…’ feeling and as if I had read a better version of the same message before but couldn’t quite place where. Again though, this is all really down to my own preferences. The only way you’ll know if you’ll like it is to give it a try.


1 Comment

Filed under Novels, Reviews, Short Stories

One response to “A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, Julian Barnes

  1. Hi there just wanted to give you a quick heads up and let you know a few of the pictures aren’t loading properly. I’m not sure why but
    I think its a linking issue. I’ve tried it in two different internet browsers and both show the same outcome.

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