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Consider the treatment of history in Julian Barnes's A History of The World in 10 1/2 Chapters

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Introduction

Consider the treatment of history in Julian Barnes's A History of The World in 10 1/2 Chapters The title A History of The World in 10 1/2 Chapters immediately conveys an ironic approach to history. The half chapter indicates that Barnes is mocking the idea of being able to encapsulate the world's history in one book. (The title perhaps refers to Sir Walter Raleigh's The History of the World, which also begins with the story of the Flood.) Barnes's non-conformist narrative structure differs from the chronological narrative typical of history books. The novel has many different narrative voices. This unconventional use of form indicates an unconventional view of history. Barnes is very selective in his reference to historical events. For example, he includes the Flood, Middle Eastern history and man's landing on the moon, but omits other equally significant events. Barnes by no means attempts to be comprehensive. His treatment of history is unconventional, ironic, satirical and irreverent. In his half chapter, 'Parenthesis', Barnes directly addresses his treatment of the theme of history. Here he addresses the reader similarly to the way El Greco stares out of his own painting, 'Burial of The Count of Orgaz': with an 'ironical eye.' Barnes states clearly that 'History isn't what happened. History is just what historians tell us.' He communicates his belief that history is simply fabulation: 'You keep a few true facts and spin a new story round them.' Barnes also shows that 'Dates don't tell the truth'; the ones we remember aren't necessarily the most important. Barnes communicates his belief that 'The objective truth is not obtainable' and that history is not a 'God-eyed version of what "really" happened.' In 'The Survivor' Barnes skilfully illustrates the idea of fabulation. Kath escapes in a boat to sea from an impossible relationship. There may or may not have been a nuclear war. At the end of the chapter it is unclear whether Kath is on an island and the men in her dreams are the fabulators or whether she is in a hospital and she herself is the fabulator. ...read more.

Middle

Yet Barnes has said: "All the narrators are meant to be touching in their aspirations, even if often proved to be foolish or deluded" (Stuart 15). Does this include the narrator of "Parenthesis"? Barnes manages to summon up a remarkably wide range of different voices (those "voices echoing in the dark" (240) that constitute the history of the world). Chapter eight, for instance, consists entirely of letters sent by a second rate actor to his girl friend back home. Barnes accurately captures the clich�s, lack of punctuation and poor syntax that reveal his derivative mind: I get out your photo with the chipmunk face and kiss it. That's all that matters, you and me having babies. Let's do it, Pippa. Your mum would be pleased, wouldn't she? I said to Fish do you have kids, he said yes they're the apple of my eye. I put my arm round him and gave him a hug just like that. It's things like that that keep everything going, isn't it? (211) Compare this to the half chapter ("Parenthesis") in which "Julian Barnes" talks in the first person about love: Poets seem to write more easily about love than prose writers. For a start, they own that flexible "I" (when I say "I" you will want to know within a paragraph or two whether I mean Julian Barnes or someone invented; a poet can shimmy between the two, getting credit for both deep feeling and objectivity). (225) In drawing attention to the prose medium he is using, Barnes - unlike the actor - contrives to complicate and energize his whole discourse on the difficult subject of love. Style and sincerity are shown to be closely connected. Barnes shows an equal command of sixteenth century French legalese, nineteenth century Irish religious enthusiasm, and contemporary American (with acknowledgements to his friend Jay McInerney for technical assistance). What all the chapters and voices have in common is that each subjects a section of Western history to the imperative of textual narrative. ...read more.

Conclusion

The extent (and cultural limits) of that variety is neatly summarized by the dreamer in heaven. Apart from eating, golf, sex and shopping, he indulges in more or less all the incidents that have already been recounted in the previous nine and half chapters: - I went on several cruises [chaps. 2 and 7]; - I learned canoeing [chap. 8], mountaineering [chaps. 6 and 9], ballooning; - I got into all sorts of danger and escaped [chaps. 4, 5, and 7]; - I explored the jungle [chap.8]; - I watched a court case (didn't agree with the verdict) [chap. 3]; - I tried being a painter (not as bad as I thought!) and a surgeon [chap. 5]; - I fell in love, of course, lots of times ["Parenthesis" - the half chapter]; - I pretended I was the last person on earth (and the first) [chaps. 10 and 1]. (297) There is no master discourse. This book is titled A History of the World. As Merritt Moseley comments, "No claim is made that this history is the right one [. . .] there are only histories" (109). But the repetitions and intertextual allusions also assert in narrative form that certain patterns of human interaction reappear over the expanse of history. No matter how you tell it - and Barnes tells it in a bewildering variety of ways - history seemingly cannot help revealing certain repetitive aspects of human nature. Perhaps the most reiterated motif is that of the woodworm related to that of the numerous reincarnations of the Ark. It is a woodworm who is revealed in the final sentence of the chapter to be the narrator of chapter one. He and six other woodworms stowed away on the Ark and escape undetected after the Flood has subsided. Yet the status of this woodworm is as ambiguous as that of the traditional historian who, according to Barthes, contrives to "'dechronologize' the 'thread' of history" (10). In the final surprise paragraph of chapter one of Barnes's book the woodworm speaks "with the hindsight of a few millennia" (30). ...read more.

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