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This is, in short, a complete, unsettling, and frequently exhilarating vision of the world, starting with the voyage of Noah's ark and ending with a sneak preview of heaven!


From the Trade Paperback edition.
Published: VintageAnchor an imprint of Random House Publishing Group on Jun 15, 2011
ISBN: 9780307797865
List price: $11.99
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One of those quirky books, playful, which takes you from the Ark (and a nasty drunken Noah), through other disastrous sea voyages in northern Australia and west Africa, to a quest to find the Ark and a rather fake Noah. It's the history of the world in a tangential funny sense, but there is also insight behind the satire.read more
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
This book, pace some of the blurb supporters, is not a novel….at least not in the traditional sense of having a protagonist and supporting characters, a narrative arc and a plot that may or may not work and may or may not be resolved in the end. I’m not sure what genre I would call it; it reminds me of Molina’s Sepharad: a book of ideas that, in the case of Barnes, ranges even more broadly across ideas or questions of the connections between art (writing, painting, music) and life; the role, meaning and purpose of religious belief; the moral capacities of animals versus humans with the latter coming off rather the worse in the comparison; the rightness/wrongness/impossibility of judging the actions of others taken in extreme circumstances and the unknowability of one’s own actions until faced with similar circumstances; the ‘reality’ of perception versus the ‘reality’ of the world and how the ‘reality’ of either shifts with the observer/actor so which is ‘real’; myth as collective memory but also something that refers us forward to something that will happen so that myth becomes reality; the fragility and permeability of personal relations that can shift and sour to degrees unimagined at the start; the need to look clearly at death as part of life; the attraction of, and need for, love in all its unfathomable aspects; the tendency to simplification (“…complicated matters were best understood using zestful intuition untainted by any actual knowledge or research.”); the gap between native peoples and those of a more “sophisticated” technological society and the uncertainty of where sympathies should lie.If there is a unifying arc in this book it is the Ark and Noah himself. The book opens with a story of the voyage of the Ark told from the point of view of stowaways (woodworms) ; others of this species are later the subject of a story about a court case seeking to excommunicate woodworms for having weakened a chair that tumbled a Bishop and reduced him to a “state of imbecility”. The story, The Mountain, recounts the history of a Miss Ferguson who, in the 1800s,with a paid travelling companion, Miss Logan, makes a pilgrimage to Mount Ararat where Miss Ferguson happily lies to down to die in a cave; her bones are found over 100 years later by a former US astronaut who, having walked on the moon, makes his own pilgrimage to Mount Ararat and believes he has found Noah’s bones when he comes upon the remains of Miss Ferguson. Through all of these, it seems to me, Barnes ridicules the permeability and utter flexibility of faith that sees portents and answers in the strangest places and can, in the end, rationalize anything with reference to faith and the belief that it is not for us to discern the mind of God. I am rather with Barnes in thinking of God’s “routine and fairly repellent morality” and his role as a “moral bully” in the story of Jonah and whale. Elsewhere, in another piece, Barnes muses on 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?”Barnes has a jaundiced view of the moral capacities of human beings especially as they are manifested through great ideas or great movements: “…it’s about the sort of conflict running through human life in every time and every civilization. Discipline v. permissivenss. Sticking to the letter of the law v. sticking to its spirit. Means and ends. Doing the right thing for the wrong reason v. doing the wrong thing for the right reason. How great ideas like the Church get bogged down in bureaucracy. How Christianity starts off as the religion of peace but ends up violent like other religions. You could say the same thing about Communism or anything else, any big idea.”I like Barnes on history:“History isn't what happened. History is just what historians tell us. There was a pattern, a plan, a movement, expansion, the march of democracy; it is a tapestry, a flow of events, a complex narrative, connected, explicable. One good story leads to another. First it was kings and archbishops with some offstage divine tinkering, then it was the march of ideas and the movements of masses, then little local events which mean something bigger, but all the time it's connections, progress, meaning, this led to this, this happened because of this. We, the readers of history, the sufferers from history, we scan the pattern for hopeful conclusions, for the way ahead. And we cling to history as a series of salon pictures, conversation pieces whose participants we can easily reimagine back into life, when all the time it's more like a multi-media collage, with paint applied by a decorator's roller rather than camel-hair brush.The history of the world? Just voices echoing in the dark; images that burn for a few centuries and then fade; stories, old stories that sometimes overlap; strange links, impertinent connections.”I especially liked Barnes’s exploration and parsing of the painting, “The Raft of the Medusa” by Gericault (1819) based on a true incident in which a French naval ship, the Medusa, ran aground; some got to shore, but at least 147 people were set adrift on a hurriedly fashioned raft; all but 15 died in the 13 days they were on the ocean; they survived starvation, dehydration, cannibalism and madness. Barnes takes the painting apart and invites us to consider different interpretations of what Gericault had in mind with his use of light, of the numbers of people (more than the 15 rescued in reality), how they are posed on the raft and what those postures mean; also, what the painting can say to us about the incident itself and more broadly about life and class and morality. Barnes notes that Gericault did not paint the necessary cannibalism, but I think there is a hint of it: the figure at the far left bottom on the raft is clearly just a torso that has been split open at the chest and cut off just below the ribs. At the bottom, almost centre is the naked body of a man lying in the lap of an older man who has his back turned on the rescue ship on the horizon; to the far right, also at the bottom, is the body of woman whom we see only from about the neck down, she is on her back, her legs naked and open, her modesty preserved with a drape of cloth. Both the male and female figures share the same lighting effects; in life they would represent regeneration and birth through the possibility of mating; in death they mock that. A very interesting and thought-provoking book.read more
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
An extremely entertaining read that gives you a lot to think about. I love Julian Barnes!!!read more
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
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Reviews

One of those quirky books, playful, which takes you from the Ark (and a nasty drunken Noah), through other disastrous sea voyages in northern Australia and west Africa, to a quest to find the Ark and a rather fake Noah. It's the history of the world in a tangential funny sense, but there is also insight behind the satire.
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
This book, pace some of the blurb supporters, is not a novel….at least not in the traditional sense of having a protagonist and supporting characters, a narrative arc and a plot that may or may not work and may or may not be resolved in the end. I’m not sure what genre I would call it; it reminds me of Molina’s Sepharad: a book of ideas that, in the case of Barnes, ranges even more broadly across ideas or questions of the connections between art (writing, painting, music) and life; the role, meaning and purpose of religious belief; the moral capacities of animals versus humans with the latter coming off rather the worse in the comparison; the rightness/wrongness/impossibility of judging the actions of others taken in extreme circumstances and the unknowability of one’s own actions until faced with similar circumstances; the ‘reality’ of perception versus the ‘reality’ of the world and how the ‘reality’ of either shifts with the observer/actor so which is ‘real’; myth as collective memory but also something that refers us forward to something that will happen so that myth becomes reality; the fragility and permeability of personal relations that can shift and sour to degrees unimagined at the start; the need to look clearly at death as part of life; the attraction of, and need for, love in all its unfathomable aspects; the tendency to simplification (“…complicated matters were best understood using zestful intuition untainted by any actual knowledge or research.”); the gap between native peoples and those of a more “sophisticated” technological society and the uncertainty of where sympathies should lie.If there is a unifying arc in this book it is the Ark and Noah himself. The book opens with a story of the voyage of the Ark told from the point of view of stowaways (woodworms) ; others of this species are later the subject of a story about a court case seeking to excommunicate woodworms for having weakened a chair that tumbled a Bishop and reduced him to a “state of imbecility”. The story, The Mountain, recounts the history of a Miss Ferguson who, in the 1800s,with a paid travelling companion, Miss Logan, makes a pilgrimage to Mount Ararat where Miss Ferguson happily lies to down to die in a cave; her bones are found over 100 years later by a former US astronaut who, having walked on the moon, makes his own pilgrimage to Mount Ararat and believes he has found Noah’s bones when he comes upon the remains of Miss Ferguson. Through all of these, it seems to me, Barnes ridicules the permeability and utter flexibility of faith that sees portents and answers in the strangest places and can, in the end, rationalize anything with reference to faith and the belief that it is not for us to discern the mind of God. I am rather with Barnes in thinking of God’s “routine and fairly repellent morality” and his role as a “moral bully” in the story of Jonah and whale. Elsewhere, in another piece, Barnes muses on 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?”Barnes has a jaundiced view of the moral capacities of human beings especially as they are manifested through great ideas or great movements: “…it’s about the sort of conflict running through human life in every time and every civilization. Discipline v. permissivenss. Sticking to the letter of the law v. sticking to its spirit. Means and ends. Doing the right thing for the wrong reason v. doing the wrong thing for the right reason. How great ideas like the Church get bogged down in bureaucracy. How Christianity starts off as the religion of peace but ends up violent like other religions. You could say the same thing about Communism or anything else, any big idea.”I like Barnes on history:“History isn't what happened. History is just what historians tell us. There was a pattern, a plan, a movement, expansion, the march of democracy; it is a tapestry, a flow of events, a complex narrative, connected, explicable. One good story leads to another. First it was kings and archbishops with some offstage divine tinkering, then it was the march of ideas and the movements of masses, then little local events which mean something bigger, but all the time it's connections, progress, meaning, this led to this, this happened because of this. We, the readers of history, the sufferers from history, we scan the pattern for hopeful conclusions, for the way ahead. And we cling to history as a series of salon pictures, conversation pieces whose participants we can easily reimagine back into life, when all the time it's more like a multi-media collage, with paint applied by a decorator's roller rather than camel-hair brush.The history of the world? Just voices echoing in the dark; images that burn for a few centuries and then fade; stories, old stories that sometimes overlap; strange links, impertinent connections.”I especially liked Barnes’s exploration and parsing of the painting, “The Raft of the Medusa” by Gericault (1819) based on a true incident in which a French naval ship, the Medusa, ran aground; some got to shore, but at least 147 people were set adrift on a hurriedly fashioned raft; all but 15 died in the 13 days they were on the ocean; they survived starvation, dehydration, cannibalism and madness. Barnes takes the painting apart and invites us to consider different interpretations of what Gericault had in mind with his use of light, of the numbers of people (more than the 15 rescued in reality), how they are posed on the raft and what those postures mean; also, what the painting can say to us about the incident itself and more broadly about life and class and morality. Barnes notes that Gericault did not paint the necessary cannibalism, but I think there is a hint of it: the figure at the far left bottom on the raft is clearly just a torso that has been split open at the chest and cut off just below the ribs. At the bottom, almost centre is the naked body of a man lying in the lap of an older man who has his back turned on the rescue ship on the horizon; to the far right, also at the bottom, is the body of woman whom we see only from about the neck down, she is on her back, her legs naked and open, her modesty preserved with a drape of cloth. Both the male and female figures share the same lighting effects; in life they would represent regeneration and birth through the possibility of mating; in death they mock that. A very interesting and thought-provoking book.
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
An extremely entertaining read that gives you a lot to think about. I love Julian Barnes!!!
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
A neat loosely-linked compendium of diverse dazzling chapters. Barnes takes you on a journey and provides an erudite commentary that illuminates and entertains. 10 1/2 Chapters is a difficult book to pin down, but it is an excellent read. I particularly liked the Noah's Ark story and the riff on the Raft of the Medusa. A brilliant exposition from a talented writer who has built a laconic pigeon hole all of his own.
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
This is a fun and lighthearted collection of short stories that ends up tackling the uncertainty of the human condition and the meaning of life constructed out of and against our interpretation of religion. Really. Or at least, that's what I got from it. Since apparently relativism is a big thing with this book.History of the World leads with a story of Noah's Ark, a motif which most of the stories tie back into in one way or another. God is vicious and wrathful, Noah's an angry drunk, and clearly there's resentment among the animals over their playing favorites with the clean and unclean business. But as the stories progress, the readers seem to be drawn farther and farther away from God - from the religious fundamentalists who misuse God to their own ends, to the vaguely spiritual, to the secular humanists, to a Heaven that's crafted democratically, with abounding pleasure and nothing adversative and no God in sight. With such a loss comes an existential crisis: what is the reason for the world, and how should one live, in light of this lack of a religious and moral guiding force? Barnes does not quite answer this, but I do like a line spoken by an ex-astronaut gone off on a search for Noah's Ark: "I went 240,000 miles to see the moon - and it was the earth that was really worth looking at."
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
During a heated discussion several years ago, my wife accused me of being “way too linear” in my thinking. (I’m still not quite sure what she meant by that, but I’m reasonably certain it wasn’t a compliment.) Given that comment, however, I am sure that she would appreciate the sort of novels that Julian Barnes writes.In fact, as with "Flaubert’s Parrot," some might argue that "A History of the World" is not really a novel at all but rather a collection of tangentially connected stories that are as much documentary as they are fiction. What the book clearly is not is linear story-telling, mixing as it does a retelling of the Noah’s Ark story from the perspective of a stowaway with a detailed analysis of a painting that hangs in the Louvre and an archeological expedition to Mt. Ararat. It all does make sense ultimately—the chapters actually do progress from Genesis to Revelations—and much of what it contains is both philosophically challenging and very funny.
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