Slightly More Than Ten and a Half Chapters: an Introduction

Many years ago now, at a time when my life seemed filled with nothing more than possibilities, I read “A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters by Julian Barnes. I can’t honestly say that it transformed my world into something unrecognizable.

But what it did do was open my mind to the possibilities of literature. I hadn’t read much literary fiction at the time, and this was a wonderful introduction. It was that rare tour de force where the emphasis in on the tour – which is exactly that sort of thing that’s always appealed to me.

Enough nostalgia. Starting next week, one chapter (or half a chapter) at a time, I’ll picking up this book I haven’t read in 20 years to see how well it holds up. I hope you’ll come along for the ride.

Slightly More Than Ten and a Half Chapters: Chapter One – The Stowaway

Okay, I remember that this chapter blew me away the first time I read it, and it holds up rather well. It’s a wonderfully funny revisionist take on the tale of Noah and the Ark. (You can read the original in any Bible – Genesis, chapters 6 through 9 – but trust me, this version has better jokes.)
Continue reading

Slightly More Than Ten and a Half Chapters: The Visitors

Despite its innocuous name, this story has a lot more meat – and a lot fewer laughs – to it than the previous chapter. Let’s get stuck in.
Continue reading

Slightly More Than Ten and a Half Chapters: The Wars of Religion

Again, Barnes takes a journey through another genre here, this one a mightily obscure one: the florid style of court proceedings in 16th century France. He plays it entirely straight, too. I don’t know if the document of which this claims to be a translation is real or not (although I suspect not), but certainly Barthélemy de Chasseneuz was a real jurist of the era, and his celebrated defence of rats did occur.
Continue reading

Slightly More Than Ten and a Half Chapters: Shipwreck

If chapter three’s faux translation of court documents was a departure from the standards of fictional forms, this one is even moreso. In fact, it splits into two parts. The first is a measured retelling of the wreck of a French ship named the Medusa, and the sufferings and final rescue of the survivors of that wreck, in July 1816. The second, complete with a gorgeous full colour gatefold reproduction, is an essay on the subject of how that event came to be painted by Gericault.
Continue reading

Slightly More Than Ten and a Half Chapters: The Mountain

Barnes continues here his recurring themes and motifs: there is an appearance by the painting that was the subject of “The Shipwreck”, and the most extended reference to Noah and his Ark since the first chapter – the Mountain of the title is none other than Mt Ararat, traditionally considered the place where the Ark came to rest. But it’s the themes that are the most interesting. Continue reading

Slightly More Than Ten and a Half Chapters: Three Simple Stories

Deploy jaws for dropping: none of the three stories here are simple. Again, we have references to Noah, and, more cunningly, to woodworm; to shipwreck, to faith, to hypocrisy and humanity. The three stories are linked by their nautical aspect, and by being tales of deliverance (gained or thwarted), but by little else.
Continue reading

Slightly More Than Ten and a Half Chapters: Upstream!

A change of pace, this one. The only story in the book to be told in an epistolary form – a form which I have always found quite fascinating, as it’s one the most interesting ways of showing a slow evolution of character. In this case, it’s a series of letters home from an actor shooting a film somewher deep in the Amazonian jungle, although what he finds is less a heart of darkness and more a heart of banality.
Continue reading

Slightly More Than Ten and a Half Chapters: Parenthesis

Finally, eight chapters into this book, Barnes addresses the reader directly, unfolding his views on love, and pulling together the thematic strands of this book, as each thing thus far mentioned finds its place as a metaphor in his construction. It’s elegant in its writing and its cleverness, and yet the argument itself is presented with a beguiling casualness, an inelegance that can only be deliberate.
Continue reading

Slightly More Than Ten and a Half Chapters: Project Ararat

The only story in the book to be a direct sequel to one of the others – ‘The Mountain’ – ‘Project Ararat’ is the story of astronaut Spike Tiggler, his physical journeys to the Moon and Mt Ararat, and his spiritual journey between them.
Continue reading

Slightly More Than Ten and a Half Chapters: The Dream

So here we are, at the end of the line. The last story in the book, a tale of a Heaven that’s perfectly mundane, or perhaps, mundanely perfect. I’m really not sure where Barnes was going with this one.
Continue reading

Slightly More Than Ten and a Half Chapters: Summing Up

That was an interesting walk down memory lane, I must say. And a welcome refresher in just how good writing can be. But it was a little more than that. Let me unpick it as a whole, rather than as discrete pieces.

Stylistically, with no two chapters reading the same way, or written in the same voice, the book comes across as the literary equivalent of one of Queen’s better albums: each of its components a different experiment in style and genre, but all of them carefully selected and ordered in a way that makes the whole more than the mere sum of its parts. It’s a literary experiment I’d like to try duplicating myself one day.
Continue reading