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History in A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters

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History in A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters

3.1 Analysis

The book was published in 1989, as Barnes’ fifth novel and was compared to Flaubert’s Parrot, the most successful novel of his until then. As the author admits, his original idea was to take the main protagonist of Flaubert’s Parrot’s George Braithwaite and let him be the voice of Guide to the Bible. This bible would be adjusted to modern use and thus ridden of boring parts and written by an “agnostic sceptic rationalist” (Guignery 61). Although Barnes dropped the idea, he partially used it in writing the first chapter of A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters, which deals with the biblical deluge and its aftermath, as seen by a rather improbable passenger on the Ark – a woodworm.

In terms of form and structure, A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters is a novel comprising of ten full chapters and one semi-chapter called “Parenthesis”. At first glance, the ten chapters seem quite random, presenting various scenes from history that are told by a range of highly heterogeneous narrators. The chronology is disrupted and the book lacks a unifying plot. This, together with the fact that some chapters had been published separately in the New Yorker, was the reason why some critics refused to look at it as a novel, but rather referred to it as a collection of short stories (Guignery 61). However, the author himself asserts forcefully that it is a novel, as it has been conceived and written as a whole (Guignery 62) and it contains motifs which reappear throughout the book (ships, sea, objective truth, woodworm, catastrophes). The novel could be seen as a juxtaposed puzzle of stories and motifs that tend to make more sense as the reader advances through its chapters.

The very title suggests the rather contradictory idea of the book’s nature. It is mostly the contrast between the indefinite article, suggesting there is not one account of history but many, and the lengthy and ambitious rest of the title, by which Barnes most probably refers to The History of the World by Sir Walter Raleigh that also starts with Genesis, as was pointed out by Brian Finney in his essay. Nevertheless, by providing the number of chapters in the title of the book, Barnes indirectly undermines the majestic intention of putting the whole of human history into a book of only a few chapters and about 300 pages long. It becomes clear from the first chapter, “The Stowaway”, that the author’s intention is not to give the reader a polished, carefully selected, well-arranged and completely objective account of history. On the contrary, Barnes strives to upend the notion of history as something well known, fixed, given and ultimate and to wake the readers to their realizing each history is dependent on its writer. The historian has his or her final say in the matters of what facts to include and which could or should be omitted, as well as in the choice of the form in which the history is presented. (Ricoeur 185)

3.2 Chapter Summaries and Examples and Commentaries

In order to analyse the concept of memory, several extracts will be analysed, especially parts containing the word history, as it is the prevalent form memory took in the novel.

“The Stowaway”

The chapter humorously pretends to be an apocryphal account of the Deluge and presents an account meant to correct people’s knowledge. Despite the fact that more scientifically oriented readers would not take the story of the biblical flood as an account of human history, it surely is a perfect example of a “history” that is well known even among non-believers, and moreover represents a part of western cultural heritage. Barnes takes something established, canonized and to some even sacred and provides a “true” version. The identity of the narrator is not to be revealed until much later, but it is mentioned at the beginning that he belonged to the species that had not actually been chosen to be saved on the Ark.

By choosing a woodworm as the narrator of the story, Barnes achieves several things. First of all, he decentralizes the story. It is not Noah’s perspective or some omnipresent voice serving as a witness to the events, and is instead the perspective of a seemingly minor character who represents a species that is unimportant or perhaps even dangerous to the success of the mission. The minor character, a vermin, a parasite, serves as the furthest possible counterpart to the noble Noah to whom God himself entrusted the great task of saving humanity and animal species. The woodworm sets himself apart from both the humans and the rest of the animal species and claims his account of events could be trusted, as he has no sense of obligation or feelings of loyalty towards Noah, who had no intention of saving his species.
Now, I realize that accounts differ. Your species has its much repeated version, which still charms even sceptics; while the animals have a compendium of sentimental myths. But they’re not going to rock the boat, are they? Not when they’ve been treated as heroes, not when it’s become a matter of pride that each and every one of them can proudly trace its family tree straight back to the Ark. They were chosen, they endured, they survived: it’s normal for them to gloss over the awkward episodes, to have convenient lapses of memory. But I am not constrained in that way. I was never chosen. In fact, like several other species, I was specifically not chosen. I was a stowaway; I too survived; I escaped (getting off was no easier than getting on); and I have flourished. I am a little set apart from the rest of animal society, which still has its nostalgic reunions: there is even a Sealegs Club for species which never once felt queasy. When I recall the Voyage, I feel no sense of obligation; gratitude puts no smear of Vaseline on the lens. My account you can trust.
Here the biblical story is not just another story, but is a history that really happened. The narrator nevertheless admits the account might have become distorted over time. This is a clear hint for the reader to expect an unreliable narrator. The woodworm’s role is to amend the biblical story (people’s version) or supplement some important missing information.

Through the voice of the main hero, Barnes makes several observations about history. For instance, he is saying that the individuals or societies to whom certain historical developments have been favourable tend to forget unpleasant details about their experience, as they suppress the memory of them. The narrator conversely claims he has no reason for having a lenient look at past events, and feels no gratitude to Noah as the woodworms saved themselves without anybody’s help. The implication here is the narrator has no reason to lie and will recount the events as they truly happened.

There were times when Noah and his sons got quite hysterical. That doesn’t tally with your account of things? You’ve always been led to believe that Noah was sage, righteous and God-fearing, and I’ve already described him as a hysterical rogue with a drink problem?
The existence of multiple accounts of the Flood is from now on taken for granted and the narrator shocks the reader by sharing some unflattering information about Noah and his sons. This disrespectful depiction has a humorous effect and the sheer difference between the biblical version and the woodworm’s account propels the reader to read further and invites him to “compare his notes” with the woodworm’s account. In a way, the woodworm creates an atmosphere not unlike the one present in tabloids, where people learn shocking or even nasty things about celebrities, which however often raises their interest and curiosity.

That is nearly the end of my revelations. They are intended – you must understand me – in a spirit of friendship. If you think I am being contentious, it is probably because your species – I hope you don’t mind my saying this – is so hopelessly dogmatic. You believe what you want to believe, and you go on believing it. But then, of course, you all have Noah’s genes. No doubt this also accounts for the fact that you are often strangely incurious. You never ask, for instance, this question about your early history: what happened to the raven?

...; but that Noah decided it was ‘more appropriate’ to say that the dove had discovered it.
Through the voice of an outsider Barnes manages to step aside and assess how humans deal with their history. He claims people are dogmatic and believe only facts that actually match their ideas (of themselves or about history). The partiality of the human species is accredited to their pedigree, which based on the Bible goes back to Noah’s genes. Barnes further criticizes how people take things as they present themselves and do not scrutinize them nor question their veracity. The second excerpt sentence repeats the claim that the human species is prone to improve the image of past events.

The raven, I need hardly add, felt hurt and betrayed at this instant rewriting of history, and it is said – by those with a better ear than mine – that you can hear the sad croak of dissatisfaction in his voice to this day.

In the Stowaway story, the raven is deprived of being the first one to report on having spotted the land towards the end of the flood once the waters subside. To add credibility, this revelation is supported by an explanation of the raven’s typical croaky voice. This creative argument goes hand-in-hand with other known biblical explanations, such as the one of the serpent, who now needs to crawl on its belly since he tempted and deceived Eve in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3).
“The Visitors”

The second chapter describes a hijacking of a cruise liner. The events presented are in fact quite similar to a similar incident that took place in 1985, the hijacking of Achille Lauro (Guignery 62). The main character Franklin Hughes is a TV star who entertains rich clientele on board a cruise liner with his witty remarks about historical events and facts.

What his special area of knowledge was nobody could quite discern, but he roved freely in the worlds of archaeology, history and comparative culture. He specialized in the contemporary allusion which would rescue and enliven for the average viewer such dead subjects as Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps, or Viking treasure hoards in East Anglia, or Herod’s palaces.
As Barnes/the narrator introduces the main character to the readers he conveys a deeper message. In order to make history attractive and accessible, historians present the scientific facts in a way that creates an illusion of a nearly perfectly informed narrative. Yet the links between individual bits of information are mere assumptions, interpretations or even speculations, influenced by the personality and erudition of the author, as well as by the process of information selection. Analogically, one might recall Barnes’ metaphor of a fishing net mentioned earlier.

Many of the passengers commented to one another on Franklin’s obvious enthusiasm for his subject, how refreshing it was in these cynical times, and how he really made history come alive for them.

If Franklin described himself as a writer, then this might nudge him into becoming one. Next time round, there was a definite chance for a book-of-the-series; and beyond that he was toying with something serious but sexy – like a personal history of the world – which might roost for months in the bestseller lists.
Franklin’s words here could be seen as the author’s technique of simultaneously staying in character and removing himself from it at the same time. The book Barnes ascribes to his main character’s ambition is in fact what the readers are reading - an actual attempt on the world history in a comprehensive, yet amusing, understandable and definitely very personal way. Imperfectly hidden, there is also the author’s wish for his book to sell well.
‘The world is not a cheerful place. I would have thought your investigations into the ancient civilizations would have taught you that. But anyway … I have decided to take your advice. We shall explain to the passengers what is happening. How they are mixed up in history. What that history is.’
Further into the chapter, the ship is hijacked by terrorists and the passengers are taken hostage. The lines above are the words of one of the terrorists intended for Franklin. The innocent tourists from different countries find themselves in the middle of an attempt to achieve a prisoner exchange. They get “mixed up in history”, as Barnes put it. Calling an event in progress “history” is nevertheless usually preposterous. Not only is the real impact of actions nearly impossible to predict, but history only seems coherent when looked at retrospectively. Then one can claim that this led to this and this to that. But trying to evaluate the consequences of an action taking place at the moment is not advisable, as the perspectives of both time and space have yet to develop. People do not live history, they live their present lives that mostly advance by very small everyday steps. Occasionally people end up being a part of historically important events, but however big the events are, their importance can only be correctly evaluated much later.
“The Survivor”

They say I don’t understand things. They say I’m not making the right connections. Listen to them, listen to them and their connections. This happened, they say, and as a consequence that happened. There was a battle here, a war there, a king was deposed, famous men – always famous men, I’m sick of famous men – made events happen. Maybe I’ve been out in the sun too long, but I can’t see their connections. I look at the history of the world, which they don’t seem to realize is coming to an end, and I don’t see what they see.

The story speaks about a woman who is trying to escape the effects of an apocalyptic war on a stolen boat with two cats (an ark of sorts) and intends to start a new and purer life. Through Kathleen’s meditations, Barnes contemplates the nature of history. It is made of connections between events and their consequences. It appears that here the events got out of hand and led to a catastrophe. No wonder men are held accountable for it, as they often look in only one direction and tend to miss the overall picture. Additionally, it was not women who started the greatest wars in human history. The excerpt refers to a grand illusion of mankind that holds that people can control events and by means of their perfect navigation they will escape the devastating storms of history.

The first part of the chapter tells of the historical events of the shipwreck and the survival of the crew members of the French frigate, Medusa. The second part is basically an art criticism essay, analysing the aesthetics of Géricault’s painting of the event, The Raft of the Medusa, and considering his motivation to paint the scene the way he did.

Adam and Eve, the Expulsion, the Annunciation, the Last Judgment – you can have all these by major artists. But Noah and his Ark? A key moment in human history, a storm at sea, picturesque animals, divine intervention in human affairs: surely the necessary elements are there. What could account for this iconographical deficiency? Perhaps the lack of a single Ark painting great enough to give the subject impetus and popularity. Or is it something in the story itself: maybe artists agreed that the Flood doesn’t show God in the best possible light?
As the major motifs of Barnes’ novel recur regardless of the shift in time, narrator or the topic of each chapter, this excerpt brings the reader back to the Ark. Barnes wonders how it is possible that no great painting exists depicting the Ark, while there are many portrayals of shipwrecks significantly less important than “a key moment in human history”, as he sees the Ark. Since all the dramatic elements suitable for artistic rendition are present, he ascribes the lack of great painters’ interest to the fact that there had not been any great model, any precursor to inspire later attempts. In a subversive spirit, he nevertheless casts a shadow of doubt when suggesting artists did not think the best of God, knowing what the Flood was all about.

What did he paint, then? Well, what does it look as if he painted? Let us reimagine our eye into ignorance. We scrutinize ‘Scene of Shipwreck’ with no knowledge of French naval history. We see survivors on a raft hailing a tiny ship on the horizon (the distant vessel, we can’t help noticing, is no bigger than that butterfly would have been). Our initial presumption is that this is the moment of sighting which leads to a rescue. This feeling comes partly from a tireless preference for happy endings, but also from posing ourselves, at some level of consciousness, the following question: how would we know about these people on the raft if they had not been rescued?

In this excerpt Barnes suggests that historical events only make true sense if one knows the background of events and is familiar with what preceded and what followed. Without context, one is left at the mercy of historians’ or, in this case, artist’s interpretations. He also poses a question of the knowability of history, as one learns about events either from witnesses or from some physical evidence. Neither of these is perfectly trustworthy and each could be turned into a distorted image of history. Barnes exemplifies it in this chapter when he claims Géricault included certain elements in his paintings that he must have known did not reflect the real event, as he had consulted naval sources and even interviewed two of the survivors. In the end he still chose to present his own vision of the events.

Nowadays, as we examine ‘Scene of Shipwreck’, it is hard to feel much indignation against Hugues Duroy de Chaumareys, captain of the expedition, or against the minister who appointed him captain, or the naval officer who refused to skipper the raft, or the sailors who loosed the tow-ropes, or the soldiery who mutinied. (Indeed, history democratizes our sympathies. Had not the soldiers been brutalized by their wartime experiences? Was not the captain a victim of his own pampered upbringing? Would we bet on ourselves to behave heroically in similar circumstances?) Time dissolves the story into form, colour, emotion. Modern and ignorant, we reimagine the story: do we vote for the optimistic yellowing sky, or for the grieving greybeard? Or do we end up believing both versions? The eye can flick from one mood, and one interpretation, to the other: is this what was intended?

By saying that history democratizes our sympathies, Barnes probably means that when looking back at events one has a tendency to relativize. Rarely do people have a full sum of information about an event and thus they refrain from assigning guilt to an individual force. Ultimate verdicts are consequently avoided. Another method of softening the strictness of one’s judgement is to place oneself in the position of the actors. This might perhaps refer to another popular quote from the Bible: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” (John 8:7)

In the second part of this excerpt, Barnes offers a radical solution – instead of choosing sides, choosing the presentation of history one favours, can one perhaps believe both (or multiple) versions of history? Analogically, one can think of the famous scientists (e.g. Albert Einstein, Max Planck, Erwin Schrödinger or Philip Henry Gosse) who managed to reconcile their scientific knowledge with faith (

What has happened? The painting has slipped history’s anchor. This is no longer ‘Scene of Shipwreck’, let alone The Raft of the Medusa’. We don’t just imagine the ferocious miseries on that fatal machine; we don’t just become the sufferers. They become us. And the picture’s secret lies in the pattern of its energy.
By “slipping history’s anchor”, Barnes probably means that despite historical inaccuracies in the painting, the resulting image is still powerful enough to have a tremendous effect on the viewer. In plain words, artists authors and historians are all more concerned with less with the veracity of their work and more with its success and how popular, captivating or aesthetically pleasing it is to both themselves and their audience.

Whatever the reason, Michelangelo reoriented – and revitalized – the subject. Baldassare Peruzzi followed him, Raphael followed him; painters and illustrators increasingly concentrated on the forsaken rather than the saved. And as this innovation became a tradition, the Ark itself sailed farther and farther away, retreating towards the horizon just as the Argus did when Géricault was approaching his final image. The wind continues to blow, and the tides to run: the Ark eventually reaches the horizon, and disappears over it. In Poussin’s ‘The Deluge’ the ship is nowhere to be seen; all we are left with is the tormented group of non-swimmers first brought to prominence by Michelangelo and Raphael. Old Noah has sailed out of art history.

Here Barnes illustrates how artists who actually did paint the Flood were not as concerned with those who survived on the Ark but rather with the tragedy of those left on the shore to meet their demise when the water rose up. Human fascination with tragedy, possibly arising from the fear of one’s mortality, makes it the centre of interest. One can also feel the pinch of satisfaction the narrator felt from the revenge on Noah (in being left out of the picture), whose dislikeable personality had been described in “The Stowaway”.
“The Mountain”

Whereas the Rotunda displayed a mere twenty-four feet by eighteen of stationary pigment, here they were offered some 10,000 square feet of mobile canvas. Before their eyes an immense picture, or series of pictures, gradually unwound: not just one scene, but the entire history of the shipwreck passed before them. Episode succeeded episode, while coloured lights played upon the unreeling fabric, and an orchestra emphasized the drama of events.

Here Barnes compares two ways of depicting and exhibiting the tragic event, one is the above-mentioned painting by Géricault and the other was a type of cinema predecessor, mobile canvas showing the events of the Medusa scene by scene. The message hidden in the comparison could be that the way history is presented to us is not unimportant. Despite the impressive dimensions of the painting (491 x 716 cm), it cannot compete with a new medium that utilizes motion and accompanying music. People will generally give preference to more sensational, eye-catching and captivating presentations and again, putting veracity second.
“Three Simple Stories”


Beesley was – not surprisingly – intrigued by the reborn and once-again-teetering Titanic. In particular, he was keen to be among the extras who despairingly crowded the rail as the ship went down – keen, you could say, to undergo in fiction an alternative version of history. The film’s director was equally determined that this consultant who lacked the necessary card from the actors’ union should not appear on celluloid.

The main character of the first of the three stories, Lawrence Beesley, was among the survivors of the SS Titanic. A real person, he published a book about his experience and became a consultant during the shooting of the film A Night to Remember, where he attempted, disguised as an extra, to remain on the ship as she was sinking ( As Barnes is suggesting, Beesley might have wanted to relive the history, but this time he would not leave the sinking ship. This is yet another case by means of which Barnes persuades the readers to believe that history repeats itself, in various versions and often under strange circumstances. The final words of the first “simple story” confirm this assumption.

Being a violently educated eighteen-year-old, I was familiar with Marx’s elaboration of Hegel: history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. But I had yet to come across an illustration of this process. Years later I have still to discover a better one.

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