(réf.  Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines n° 2. Montpellier: Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1993)


The Ocean, The Harbour, The City: Julian Barnes' A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters.

Lionel Kelly (University of Reading)

The Ocean figures prominently in this account of Barnes's novel: the City has a marginal role, though there are cities here Paris, London, Dublin, Darwin, Hamburg but this is the least urban of Barnes's novels, and to that extent unusual, since he is very much a novelist of the city. Similarly, the Harbour has an implied relevance here, an important one, but understated in the sense of specific harbours.

This novel (1) is organised around versions of the narrative of Noah, the Ark, and the Flood: for "Ocean" we read the Flood of Biblical account, and this "history of the world" takes the biblical deluge and new beginning as its point of origin: however, in the first chapter it presumes that prior history, from the Creation forth, especially as inscribed in the notion of those elected to be saved on the Ark. Barnes provides a comic yet plangent sense of what was lost to human history by the process of election arbitrary imposed on all created things by Noah, interpreting God's intentions. The practice of "interpretation" is thus problematised early in the novel, as it continues to be: what constitutes a true history? If this history of the world occludes that period between the Creation and the Flood it is appropriate that the notion of new beginnings occurs as a mode of figuration in some of the


1. BARNES, Julian. A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters. First published London: Jonathan Cape Ltd, 1989, reprinted London: Picador, 1990. All references herein are to the Picador paperback edition.


chapters of this novel (2). With these new beginnings, Barnes also gives us apocalyptic endings: chapter four calls on that twentieth century idée fixe of apocalypse, nuclear war; chapter two uses the aggressive idiom of recent global politics, the assassination of political hostages; on a minor scale, in chapter eight there is an epistolary account of the ending of a love affair; finally, in chapter ten, the novel ends with an ambivalent beginning which also a continuation, a quotidian version of heaven in which all the commonplace instincts of the human are nourished in a kind of pleasure dome for the dead. This chapter is, I think, the least satisfactory, perhaps deliberately so, for it offers a consumerist version of paradise: here, the focaliser is not animated by a desire for knowledge, truth, beauty, justice, or wisdom, but by an incessant demand for those experiences fed to him as a minor image of his earthly desires, a surfeit of food, shopping, sex, and sport, and encounters with the famous dead, a latter-day Faustianism without Faust's fatal contact with Satan.

If the narrative of Noah, the Ark and the Flood acts as a unifying motif throughout the novel, what else is there? There are two complementary preoccupations played throughout: one is with the notion of survival which frequently includes a testing of fitness in physical or spiritual terms, as in chapters one, four, five, six, the three sections of chapter seven, and chapter nine. The other preoccupation is with bearing true witness, of true testimony.

As Noah is repeatedly figured in the novel, there is an implicit call on another Biblical patriarch, Moses, whose version of ancient history in the Pentateuch provides the primary source for the Noah legend. Against Moses's five books, Barnes gives a history of the world in ten and a half chapters: the half chapter we can accommodate easily enough; described as a 'parenthesis', it is a parergon, a discourse outside the main frame by the writer Barnes, in his own person, with reflections on love perhaps modelled on Roland Barthes' A Lover's Discourse and it argues a simple yet crucial point which I shall return to at the end of this essay.

How do we write the history of the world? Is ten chapters enough? Isn't ten an arbitrary number? Of course. But, given the call on the Biblical narratives in the novel, this ten suggests


2. This programme of new beginnings is affirmed in the reference to Géricault's abandoned earliest versions of the Medusa story, and his decision to focus on the moment when those on the raft see a ship on the far horizon, see 133 and following of the novel.


another ten, that of Moses and the ten commandments, history as it was prescribed in the human domain, guided by the imperative of 'Thou shalt not'. So I propose that Moses and the tablets of stone provided a skeletal frame for Barnes's history.

The ten commandments are an implied point of reference not only in terms of the numerical equation between them and the chapters of the novel, but also through the overt or implied play upon at least two of them in each chapter:

Those who accepted his commandments were to be judged in punctilious accordance with the law. (p147)

Three commandments are of particular relevance: the first, 'Thou shalt have no other Gods before me'; the sixth, 'Thou shalt not kill'; and the ninth, 'Thou shalt not bear false witness'. Two of these, and in some cases all three, come up throughout the novel, but especially in chapters one, six and nine, by a coincidence I take to be deliberate. More specifically, the ninth commandment is repeatedly figured, though not within a frame of biblical commentary, but applied to the collision between history and the truth and history and fiction, familiar preoccupations in Barnes's work. At one level, this novel repeats the dictum that history is a narrative construct, an interpretative reading of events, whether our history comes from the "authority" of the Bible, or Madame Bovary, or Flaubert's Parrot, or Lawrence Beesley's (1912), or from the A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, and that the conflict between history and fiction in pursuit of truth is not merely one of interpretation but also one of "witness".

The idea of true witness is used both for comic and serious purposes, and sometimes the distinction between these modes is indistinct. For example, the true witness in chapter one, which related another version of the Ark and the Flood, is a woodworm a kind of universal historian, with the verbal idioms of mid-twentieth century English, whose intention is to set a record straight -

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. (p. 4)

Furthermore, the woodworm is an intruder, a stowaway, and a mordant cynic whose tale of the voyage is of the brutality, lust and self-seeking of Noah and his family who butchered beasts and humans alike, as they felt fit. Against the satiric comedy of this chapter we might


set the third section of chapter seven, with its account of the journeyings of the liner St. Louis from its home port of Hamburg in May 1939, with a cargo of 937 passengers, most of whom were Jews, Barnes takes this material from The Voyage of the Damned by Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts (p. 311), and by doing so incorporates the notion of "bearing witness" as it has come to be used of the Holocaust, where it has a tone of agonistic gravitas, though this section of chapter seven is marked by its tone of neutral reportage. And the materials in this section, s in chapter one, include that concern I noted earlier, with survival:

On 1st September the Second World War began, and the passengers from the St Louis shared in the fate of European Jewry. Their chances rose or fell depending upon the country to which they had been allotted. Estimates of how many survived vary. (p. 188)

The novel is composed of a series of independent chapters in which these notions of survival and bearing witness are the counterpointed units of thematic organisation, against a skeletal structure drawn from the imperatives of the commandments. Throughout, the impulse is to rewrite "official" history, and occasionally to foretell events. For example, in chapter one, narrating Noah's malign authority over all the species on the ark, the woodworm tells us of the anxiety of the reindeer, whose fear was a proleptic register of some future catastrophe:

the reindeer were troubled with something deeper than Noah-angst, stranger than storm-nerves, something [...] long-term. [...] As if they were saying, You think this is the worst? Don't count on it. Still, whatever it was, even the reindeer couldn't be specific about it. Something distant, major [...] long-term. (pp. 12-13)

The event they forebode is Chernobyl, and in chapter four, Chernobyl and the plight of the reindeer with their becquerel count prefigures yet another nuclear accident, which in this chapter gives us a lone woman survivor in a small boat in the North Australian seas, Kathleen Ferris, who has finally abandoned the human, and particularly the male world, for the open seas and the two cats she carries with her, a male and female, as though re-enacting the Ark narrative on a diminished scale. In chapter two, survival and witness are addressed through specific political terms: an Hellenic cultural cruise vessel is boarded by Arab gunmen who bargain with the lives of the holidaymakers for the release of some compatriots held captive: here survival is threatened by the Arabs' resolve to kill two passengers every


hour until their terms are met. In this chapter, bearing witness takes the form of giving a "true" history of the Arab/Israeli conflict from the Balfour Declaration onwards, a version problematized because imposed on the tour guide by the Arab activists, and because the guide is a smooth talking cultural performer whose instincts for self-preservation are scourged by the slaughter of his tourists. However, the tour guide, Franklin, is a man whose political and moral convictions have previously been governed by expediency, and this is an astute strategy by Barnes, for it opens up this particular crevasse of history without providing the means to bridge or resolve it.

Of course, it was more than probable that when he gave the lecture his audience would conclude the exact opposite that Franklin was operating out of self-interest, saving his own skin by a foul piece of subservience. But this was the thing about altruism, it was always liable to be misunderstood.

And he could explain everything to them all afterwards. If there was an afterwards. If there a them all. (p. 53)

Chapters one and three are pairs, like two and four, marking the novel's oscillations of tone and mood from the comic to the serious. Thus in chapter three we are back with the woodworms, now arraigned before an ecclesiastical court in 1520, charged with the wilful destruction of the leg of the throne of the Bishop of Besançon in the church of Saint-Michel in the village of Mamirolle. What we read here is a fourth-hand version of the records of this case: an italicised introduction to chapter three gives us the primary source, the "Archives Municipales de Besançon", but points out that the ms used in this chapter is not the original submission written out by each lawyer's clerk, but the work of a third party, and that this version of the case was "perhaps part of a set of exemplary or typical proceedings used in the training of jurists". This information comes in a "translator's note", in which the "extravagant style of pleading" in the second version is, it is claimed, done "into a comparable English". Thus far we are at two removes from the original materials: however, in his Author's note to the novel, Barnes cites his use here of E.P. Evans's book The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animal of 1906 (p. 311), so what we read in chapter three is a translated version of an abbreviated version of the primary materials, as in the case of the story of Noah in Genesis and the covenant of the Ark in Exodus. The narrative of the flood id briefly told in chapters six, seven, and eight of Genesis, followed by the signally abrupt account of Noah's drunkenness and the punishment of servitude on Ham


and his generations in chapter nine. This is quite unlike the extraordinarily detailed account of how the curtains for the Ark of the Covenant must be constructed as given in chapter twenty-six of Exodus, which runs to thirty-seven verses. The effect is to make the narrative of Noah, the Flood, and especially Noah's drunkenness look curtailed, as though in the process of historical transmission some portion of an earlier narrative or narratives has been lost. Perhaps Barnes takes this to legitimise the woodworm's more expansive history of these affairs in chapter one of the his novel: and the legal argument in chapter three partly turns on whether woodworms were admitted on the Ark, an issue brilliantly exploited by their defending counsel, Bartholomé Chassenée.

The persistence of the Noah story, of shipwreck, solitude, and bearing witness is the means of unifying these disparate chapters of Barnes's novel. This is the conventional practice of the novelist, is it not, to show, as Kathleen Ferris believes in chapter four, that "Everything is connected, even the parts we don't like, especially the parts we don't like" (p84). Such connectedness is made apparent in chapter six, where Amanda Fergusson, the devout daughter of an unbelieving father, the now deceased Colonel Fergusson, makes an expedition to Arghuri on Mount Ararat to intercede for the soul of her father. Arghuri, as she explains to her companion Miss Logan, is the site where Noah planted his vines after the Flood: upon arriving there, in the Monastery later founded to mark this holy place, they are given wine made from the vines planted by Noah, which Amanda refuses to drink for she holds it a blasphemy to drink wine from the grapes which "betrayed the Patriarch": later, they witness the destruction of the monastery and the village, an event she reads as a sign of God's wrath. Ascending Mount Ararat, Amanda Fergusson stages an accident and insists on being left behind in the mouth of a cave in an exercise of her faith:

I shall remember the Holy Scripture and wait for God's will. On this mountain God's will is quite manifest. I cannot imagine a happier place from which to be taken unto Him. (p. 165)

In chapter nine, "Project Ararat", the American cosmonaut Spike Tiggler, who had earlier made a Moon landing and believed he was told by God to go and find Noah's Ark, Tiggler thinks the human skeleton he finds on Ararat is that of Noah, but we know it to be that of Amanda Fergusson.


The story of Amanda and her father not only includes this religious quest infused by the materials of the narrative of Noah, but also relates to Barnes's use of Géricault's painting "Scene of Shipwreck", a copy of which is reproduced in the novel as a coloured centrefold between the two sections of chapter five "Shipwreck". In 1821, Amanda, who had a talent for water-colours, had been taken to Dublin by her father to see Géricault's painting exhibited at the Rotunda, after its much celebrated showing in Bullocks Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, London. However, Colonel Fergusson is drawn to a rival exhibition, a mobile panorama displaying "the entire history of the shipwreck" to the accompaniment of coloured lights and an orchestra, and Amanda must make another visit to Dublin to see Géricault's painting. In this chapter the opposition is not only between the daughter's faith and her father's atheism, his belief in the future and progress, and her "superstitious" veneration of "Parson Noah", but also between his credulity in preferring the mobile panorama's re-enactment of the shipwreck and her confidence in Géricault's version, "which though static contained for her much emotion and lighting and, in its own way, music ' (p. 145) Here the distinction between Amanda and her father is one of different qualities of "eye-witness".

The two parts of chapter five juxtapose what I shall also call the eye-witness of "historical evidence", and Barnes's present-day eye-witness response to Géricault's painting, where his purpose is to see what the painting is by way of eliminating all the things it is not. Incidentally, Barnes is particular about the title of Géricault's painting, listed in the Salon catalogue of 1819 as "Scène de naufrage", a title Barnes reads as one of political caution, but also as a way of insisting that "this is a painting, not an opinion". The catalogue of the recent Géricault exhibition at the Grand Palais, Paris, 1991-2 gives the title "Le radeau de la Méduse".

The historical evidence in chapter five part one is drawn from the 1818 English translation of Savigny and Correard's Narrative of a Voyage to Senegal, and as with the reindeer of chapter one and their proleptic sense of a worse doom to come, this section opens with a portent, the accidental death of a cabin boy lost at sea which prefigures the fate of the Medusa, holed on a reef at high tide, followed by the launching of the raft. A later portent is the appearance of a white butterfly which settles on the raft's sail, and is read by some as a Heavenly portent of survival, like Noah's white dove. Otherwise, this evidence records the violence, slaughter and cannibalism on the raft prior to the rescue by the Argus, the materials, Barnes points out, Géricault might have painted, but did not. Having given us the historical context of the painting, Barnes then wants us to forget it, or rather, insists that Géricault's purpose is not a realistic re-enactment of the scene of shipwreck and rescue, as


in the Dublin mobile panorama, but is determined by issues of formal composition, the realisation of expressive energies within the large frame of his canvas, and that "The painting has slipped history's anchor" (p. 137) whilst retaining its emotional structure, the "oscillation between hope and despair, [...] reinforced by pigment" (p. 139). In comparable ways, Barnes will argue, "Old Noah has sailed out of art history" (p. 138), for if the Noah narrative is a common pictorial topos of pre-medieval and medieval artefacts, Michelangelo effected a dramatic shift in narrative focus away from Noah and his wooden Ark to "the contorted bodies of the damned" (p.138) who were not to be saved, a trajectory of pictorial representation which reaches its apogee in Poussin's "The Deluge", where the ship is no longer visible and "all we are left with is the tormented group of non-swimmers first brought to prominence by Michelangelo and Raphael" (p. 138). A narrative incident in French maritime history; a painting by a French painter: there is a connection, but the true eye-witness will read the human drama and forego the historical narrative. As though to forearm himself against a charge of aesthetic essentialism, Barnes acknowledges that like Noah, Géricault's painting is inexorably slipping from history because of his use of bitumen to give him the "shimmering gloomy black he sought" (p. 139): bitumen is chemically unstable, and the paint surface of the picture is doomed to decay:

"No sooner do we come into this world,' said Flaubert, 'than bits if us start to fall off." The masterpiece, once completed, does not stop; it continues in motion, downhill. Our leading expert on Géricault confirms that the painting is "now in part a ruin". And no doubt if they examine the frame they will discover woodworm living there." (p. 139)

I conclude with the parenthetical chapter, Barnes's discourse on love. This novel is dominated by the element of water, and fittingly, the parenthesis opens with an aqueous image of Barnes's sleeping wife:

She falls asleep like someone yielding to the gentle tug of a warm tide, and floats with confidence till morning (p. 225),

an image in marked contrast to that engagement between human and Ocean provided elsewhere in the novel, and one recalled at the end of the parenthesis:

Excited, I stir and kick. She shifts and gives a subterranean, a subaqueous sigh. Don't wake her. (p. 246)


As this parenthetical chapter, or parergon, is both about love, and writing about love, amongst other things, aqueous imagery persists as Barnes imagines the novelist like a sea-captain controlling and ordering the delicate craft of fiction through the tempest of composition:

But there is nobody below decks; the engine-room was never installed, and the rudder broke off centuries ago. The captain may put on a very good act, convincing not just himself but even some of the passengers; though whether their floating world will come through depends not on him but on the mad winds and sullen tides, the icebergs and the sudden crusts of reef. (p. 227)

This aqueous imagery is a further means of unifying the preoccupation of the novel, and I call attention to it to dispute the charge that A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, like Flaubert's Parrot, is not a real novel because it lacks a continuous narrative. What it has, precisely, is continuity of idea, theme, and figurative device throughout. Even this parenthetical chapter conforms in its tropes of language, as in the thematic range, to the materials of other chapters. Here, however, Barnes is most explicitly engaged with the idea of history, and particularly the "history of the world" (the phrase is repeated ten times in this section). At the core of this engagement is the view that love and history are at odds with each other, that history is too often a confidence-trick, the ventriloquism of impersonal narratives posing as the official version of what really happened, giving us someone else's truth:

But I can tell you why to love. Because the history of the world, which only stops at the half-house of love to bulldoze it into rubble, is ridiculous without it.

The history of the world becomes brutally self-important without love, ... Love won't change the history of the world ... but it will do something much more important: teach us to stand up to history, to ignore its chin-out strut. (p. 240)

Against the tyranny of history love offers something else. To arrive at this Barnes works in the same way as in his commentary on Géricault's painting, by arguing what love is not, or won't do, such as make us happy, or make everything all right. But love has a singular virtue; to love is to have imaginative sympathy, "to see the world fro another point of view". Metaphorically, love is a harbour, a place of anchorage against the tides of history and fabulation. This may strike us as quite surprising in Barnes, for it is all very un-Flaubertian: and there is a certain sentenciousness in this parergon that some readers


may dislike, but I find witty and often moving. Three is another dimension to this discourse, an implied conjunction between love and art. If history is someone else's narrative, it may well delight or enthral, frighten or bewilder us: but it hasn't the power to touch us in the way that love and art have because through them our engagement with the human drama has its own authority, its own truth. This is a conjunction implied by Barnes's use of two comparable images: of love he writes, "Then again, it gives clarity of vision: it's a windscreen wiper across the eyeball" (p. 234). Earlier, addressing the question as to what Géricault did paint, he writes: "Well, what does it look as if he painted? Let us re-imagine our eye into ignorance" (p. 130). This injunction is followed by deploring the figure of "the ignorant eye" against the "informed eye", informed because it knows about history, including art history, and brings its knowledge into conflict with what it sees. Not that Barnes is against the informed eye: it is just that sometimes, it gets in the way. I think these arguments from visual perception are meant to be drawn together, to see the one as like the other: what they both imply is the immediacy of engagement between self and other, self and artefact: to recuperate this intensity of engagement with the past, or the remote, we call on history: and by doing so, we substitute someone else's engagement for our own.

Finally, there is a paradox at the centre of Barnes's enterprise in this novel. A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters is a perfect example of what critics call postmortem fiction: it disputes the public record of "official" history; it deploys apocryphal history; it integrates the historical with the fantastic; it usurps the conventional authority of the wholly imaginary text by its dependence on other published sources; and partakes in that transformation of the conventions of historical fiction which is the mark of the postmortem. Yet, in what it affirms about love, and particularly about art, its aesthetic seems drawn from the nineteenth rather that the twentieth century, and suggests Matthew Arnold rather than Jean-François Lyotard. Remember Arnold's dictum, that "The function of criticism is to see the thing as in itself it really is" an aesthetic imperative we have been taught is discredited, because an object cannot be freed from its historical circumstances. At the very least, Barnes comes close to echoing this Arnoldian injunction, and thus in this novel enjoys the paradox of being both advances and reactionary.

 (réf.  Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines n° 2. Montpellier: Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1993)